Guy Maestri: Roadtrips & Roadkill
interview by Steve Proposch
photos by Kyle Ford
“Working in the field makes you focus,” says Guy Maestri. “You’ve got elements that you’re working against. You’ve got time and light.”
Like many painters who work en plein air, Guy will often finish his works in the studio, where light is even and predictable and gaps in the composition, balance or colour that weren’t apparent in the field become more obvious. It is common practice for artists to gather detrius from the field as well – leaves, rocks, flora and fauna such as a dead moth or a cicada-shell – to take back to the studio for sketching, inspiration, or perhaps a still life. but since 2014 Maestri, a Sydney-based artist, has been taking this process to extremes.
“If you’re in the studio you can leave the work, come back, get distracted … you know, it’s just one of those things that if you’re in the landscape you need to deal with the problem that’s there, and deal with it efficiently and immediately. For me, it’s the best way to really capture a painting that has all the key ingredients. Though, having said that, for the last week I’ve been trying to make paintings in the studio, just to get that bit of distance and stop being a slave to what’s there. So essentially I make work in the field, and it forces me to work fast and capture the bones of it, but sometimes I use that just as a starting point, then make work in the studio.”
As a result of this lifestyle Maestri does a substantial bit of running around between his Newtown studio and various bushy locations such as Hill End, Wilcannia and Broken Hill. He is currently in Hamilton, in western Victoria, as artist in residence at Hamilton Gallery, where an exhibition of his newest works and paintings of the local landscape opens on 21 April (until 15 May 2016).
“Even before I was a painter I had a fascination about the ecology of different areas, and the issues that come with using the land with agriculture,” he admits. “I’m always keenly aware of how the landscape is being used, what issues there are, whether there are problems with feral goats, pigs, foxes or cats, or whether there are invasive weeds. Farmers are the ones who know what’s going on and the ones who deal with all of those issues first hand, so I really like talking to people, and it’s been something that I’ve introduced in my work over the last few years.”
Startlingly, this introduction has taken the form of various species of roadkill, which the artist has gathered and put on ice during his regular roadtrips to the countryside. These specimens travel back to the freezer in Guy’s inner-city studio, where they patiently await their eventual immortalisation in oils.
“It was a natural progression,” says Maestri, “because wherever I went I came across an enormous amount of roadkill. It’s actually a way to understand what species are in an area, like a survey. If you see a lot of dead foxes then you know the place has got a real fox problem.
“Again, even before I began to paint, I would always stop and inspect something like a beautiful parrot or animal that was dead on the road, because it’s the only opportunity you ever get to handle something like that, and to understand the way that they’re made. They’re such exquisite things, and here was an opportunity to observe those things up close. But then after I took my fill of that beauty I’d just leave them there, on the side of the road, and then I’d get this … sense of loss, perhaps, that you have just a moment to observe this beautiful thing that’s dead.
“Painting it became a way of extending that moment. It’s also a form of documenting that area and observing what’s going on there. I’ve painted lots of native things and also lots of feral things, and you slowly build up a sort of catalogue of what’s around in an area.”
Travelling with other painters and friends such as Ben Quilty and Luke Sciberras adds another dimension to Guy’s work.
“Those two are quite responsible for getting me painting out in the field” he says. “For many years my paintings – while they still addressed the same things – were all studio-based work, and were quite abstract in their nature; very, umm, lyrical. But we used to hang out a lot and do a lot of drawing and stuff together, and I think Ben and Luke could see me struggling. Then I came to a bit of a turning point where I felt quite lost, and they got me out into the bush and said, ‘you just need to sit here and paint’. And that was exactly what I needed, just a very simple way of resetting what I was doing.
“It’s really lovely to have some friends and contemporaries who do what you do, and understand you, and who you can trust to throw your ideas and opinions at. That’s been really important for me, because it can be an isolating existence.”
From the moment he left the National Art School in 2002, Guy has been working as a full-time artist. He has won a Blake Prize, and has a Doug Moran, an Adelaide Perry and an Archibald notched in his belt besides. He has shown multiple times in both the Wynne Prize for Landscape Painting, and the Dobell Prize for Drawing. Yet it seems that none of these achievements have affected him. Guy is as thoroughly pleasant, humble, intelligent, funny and thoughtful a guy as you’d ever want to meet, and his achievements, he says, come from an uneven balance of ability mixed with a great deal of focus and hard work.
“I feel absolutely blessed to have been able to pursue, every day, the thing I want to pursue,” he says. “I was picked up by a gallery very soon after I left art school, and that gives you the immediate impetus to create work. But I was a boat-builder before I went to art school, and that taught me how to work hard and make things happen; how to start something and follow it through. The first paintings I made were about my experience in that environment – lots of seascapes and paintings of the harbour I used to work in – and you get to work on really elegant, beautiful old timber things as well. It’s quite refined and it makes you very handy, very capable, and you can do and fix and make things, which is again a great benefit in whatever field you end up working in. It taught me a lot about mould making, for example, which I have used a fair bit in the past, and I still muck around with a bit of sculpture. In terms of a trade it is a beautiful all-round trade.
“As a painter you have to be very self-directed. You leave art school and there’s no one telling you to do anything. While it shouldn’t be the case, there is this need to affiliate yourself with a gallery, and I see a lot of people who fall by the wayside because they just can’t work under their own steam. It can be debilitating, because you’re out on your own and you’ve got to self-initiate.
“I was actually at art school still when I entered a competition to do a mural of St. Vincent’s Hospital, and you had to do a maquette of the design of the mural, and they’d come and judge the maquette to see who would get the job to go and paint this ten-metre mural. And maybe it was a matter of me being over-keen, or maybe it was because my trade had taught me to do things, but I just made the whole mural, in my garage, and then I was like – ‘hey, here it is’ – on eleven, one metre long boards. I guess I took it as an opportunity to do work on that scale, whether or not it succeeded or was any good at all. So, I got that commission [laughs], and the guy who judged it suggested I go see this gallery, and tell them he sent me. So I think I was lucky that I had that kind of initial training in boat-building, and I was able to go on painting under my own steam and just keep working hard.”
EXHIBITIONS: Guy Maestri: Artist in Residence, Hamilton Gallery (VIC), 21 April – 15 May 2016 – hamiltongallery.org | Road Trip: Juz Kitson, Fiona Lowry, William Mackinnon, Guy Maestri, Jan Murphy Gallery (QLD), 19 April – 14 May 2016 – janmurphygallery.com.au | Artist’s site – guymaestri.com