A Life in Motion Pictures

Vicki Anderson.  15 November 2013.  The Press (GO Arts Section)

Prominent Kiwi artist Grahame Sydney has embarked on a journey into filmmaking, is working on a new book and reveals to Vicki Anderson the story behind a previous unseen painting he calls one of his ‘‘best works yet’’. Grahame Sydney is one of New Zealand’s best known artists. For nearly four decades he has captured the spirit of Central Otago in his paintings and drawings, and now he is turning his attention to filmmaking to capture more of our artistic heritage.

Craig Potton Publishing will release a book next year marking Sydney’s 40th artistic anniversary. This month Sydney has left his home and studio high above the Cambrian Valley to head north, get away from distractions, and write. ‘‘The plan is that I will see if there is anything I can say about my own shaping, my past, my childhood, out of which this painter person grew,’’ Sydney explains.

‘‘The other, more substantial segment of the book, will be written by Vincent O’Sullivan about the paintings themselves. I’m thrilled about that.’’ In his talented hands, Central Otago’s expanse of mountains, lakes and valleys and the huge skies may become larger than life itself but Sydney is a humble man and although words are quickly tumbling onto paper he worries if what appears will find appeal. ‘‘It’s strange writing about your own life. I feel lucky that Craig Potton is taking an interest. My life is dull and ordinary and of no interest.’’

He was a child of privilege. Not financial privilege but, as the youngest of three children, he was indulged with encouragement and opportunity. ‘‘I was spoilt and from an early age I wanted to be good at drawing. I was bought everything I asked for, I had the indulgent parenting that the youngest child often gets. Slowly other ambitions faded away. ‘‘None of us ever dreamed I’d wind up being a full-time painter, not in New Zealand, and certainly not as a child in the 1960s.’’

A full-time ‘‘painting career’’ began in May 1974. ‘‘ The book signifies 40 years of my full-time work. It’s a milestone. It’s been 14 years since the last book, there’s a lot of work that hasn’t been seen. This book is bigger, lusher and will contain a great deal more.’’

One such unseen work, until now, is the painting of his daughter, Melissa, which accompanies this story and which he describes as one of his ‘‘best works’’. A complicated 14-year artistic journey wrestled the image to the surface late last year. ‘‘My daughter Melissa went to Melbourne on a music scholarship at 17. I was heartbroken. ‘‘In 1998 she’d been away for a year and came home for the holidays. I decided to do a painting of her at Tunnel Beach in Dunedin.’’ Sydney says that he started it, imagining he would give it to her for her 20th birthday. ‘‘I got it locked in and composed but something was wrong. I didn’t like it. It hung on the studio wall for years until eventually I despaired of it. ‘‘It became a great embarrassment to me. I took it down and it sat for years, leaning against a pile in the studio, facing the wall.’’ Last September Melissa got married and Sydney decided he must finish the painting. ‘‘Initially I painted her sitting down on the edge of the cliff in her suede coat. I made her stand up and suddenly it was different.’’ Happily, Melissa received it as a Christmas present. ‘‘I think it’s one of my best works, even if it did have a 14-year gestation period.’’

A love of filmmaking has developed over the past six years. Part of his fascination with film lies in dispelling myths about the art world and offering a greater understanding of the inner workings of our nation’s creative people. ‘‘People are left bewildered by the art world these days. Great art isn’t readily accessible, it demands a lot of the viewer. But a lot of people feel completely distanced from what the art world is showing itself to be. It doesn’t have to be like that.’’ Sydney is working on six documentaries.

The first completed project is a ‘‘simple story of Central Otago’’ with the tentative title Desert Heart. ‘‘It’s a 30-minute film promised to the Central Otago cinema at the museum. Two of the other stories are nearly completed, they’re arts related stories. ‘‘I know what my role is as a painter. I know what I want to leave behind when I go. Film has become the exciting new challenge, the new creative sphere for me.’’ He is passionate about capturing the stories of New Zealand’s creative world, particularly our senior painters. ‘‘There are many stories about New Zealand’s creative world that I think should be done and I’m going to do them. ‘‘The series on senior painters is crucial. The more we know and see of somebody the more the art they make is meaningful. You can’t separate art from its maker, it’s a mirror. Film is the best way to capture that. These stories need to be told.’’ One such subject is his long-time friend Brian Turner, another is Invercargill painter Tony Bishop. Film will enable him to capture these stories for future generations. ‘‘In my next life I’m going to be a filmmaker. Hopefully, a little corner of this life is reserved for it as well.’’ 

2012. Oil on Linen. 920 x 1220mm

2012. Oil on Linen. 920 x 1220mm

Melissa at Tunnel Beach.


Graeme Sydney needs your help, dear readers, to solve the case of the missing artworks. Between 14 and 15 watercolours Sydney gave to a school friend were left behind in a house in George St, Dunedin, in late 1970.

‘‘They are all signed and date from 1964 to 1967,’’ Sydney says. ‘‘They were of old Dunedin houses or crucifixions, another on-going fascination, often using myself as the model. I painted them, gazing at myself in the mirror, arms outspread. I would love to find them. ‘‘They might be shoddy stuff . . . I may have signed them Syds. I gave them to a dear mate of mine at Kings High.’’

That mate, Christchurch resident John Rogers, is also curious about what happened to these artworks. ‘‘To me, they were drawings given to me by a school friend. They were stuck to the wall with drawing pins when I left that flat in late 1970,’’ Rogers recalls. ‘‘Definitely a lot of crucifixions, I remember one from Syds’ orange period. I was moving out of the flat and had no space for them.’’ He remembers leaving art behind being something of a Dunedin tradition of the time. ‘‘That flat was previously occupied by Murray Webb. When he moved out he left behind an intricate drawing of a hand.’’

Can you help? Email zn.oc.sserpnull@nosrednA.ikciV