The Press: ‘It Isn’t Easy Seeing Green’

The Press, Features Story. Something is wrong in Grahame Sydney’s Central Otago. Instead of its normal sere, dun hues, the famously expansive and empty landscape has an unnatural green tinge to it.

It is the legacy of a most indifferent and damp start to summer in what is normally the South Island’s oven. And Sydney is frustrated. “I hate green,” he says, as yet more misty cloud obscures the Hawkdun range across the valley from his Maniototo home. “It’s not the Central I know and love. Mine is a much browner and paler place.”

It is not the only thing that is not quite right in Sydney’s world just now. He has come through a quite remarkable if not entirely comfortable year, one which has seen his name and his distinctive regional, realist style become as well known as probably any contemporary artist could hope to be in their lifetime in this country.

But despite the growing audience and acclaim a major touring exhibition and book have brought him, it has been an unsettling time.

Getting his new house and studio in the Cambrian Valley built has been demanding, although the result is as good an indication as any of the obvious financial success Sydney has found with his art.

Other things have interfered and he is clearly keen to restore some discipline and focus to the need to produce more major works (he has immediate demands for half a dozen).

“It’s been a remarkably valuable year for me, professionally speaking, in that I would never have imagined the amount of interest being taken in what I’ve been doing all that time,” he says.

“It’s all been very terrific and distracting. You find yourself becoming a public person in a way that you don’t necessarily want to be. But … you have got to play that role.”

There is some apparent irony, too, for a man who specialises in representing the great unpopulated isolation of the region. Spending days or weeks at a time in a place where no people are evident, except for a distant road, always working and mostly living alone, he is feeling the isolation and the inevitable constant harping self-analysis that solitary confinement brings.

He is determined that human company will play a bigger part in his life from now on.

So, he is happy to share his time generously with a passing journalist, despite garden chores beckoning and pending visits from family and friends, including today his good friend Sam Neill. And, particularly, he is happy to talk about Central.

He can talk wisely and in detail about history and places. He has strong opinions about its politics and development. He speaks with venom and hatred of the Clyde Dam, with frustration at the loss of the railway line, with anger at the development of Queenstown. He predicts great things for the local wine industry. And, most of all, he enthuses about the land.

For those even vaguely familiar with his art, it is hard not to travel the place and think of any particular scene “that looks like a Grahame Sydney painting”.

He smiles and says he hears that, too, and quite likes it.

He is an artist who unashamedly paints for himself and no-one else. The success, it seems, is a happy by-product but, “its nice having the thought that people’s appreciation is enhanced by what you have done”.

He will allow that he has probably contributed a little to the rapidly rising appeal Central seems to hold for the rest of the country, but he is not getting carried away.

Beer advertising probably has a bigger part to play, he argues. But he is pleased it is getting recognised, including via his representations of this unforgiving, hard world – a land of extremes and of nature spread taut and thin. A place of beauty that people often do not expect and may not even recognise until, perhaps, they see it in a Grahame Sydney painting.