Summer is odd, especially in Australia.
The first dose of decent weather – as in clear blue skies, no wind, 35-degree temperatures, and, where I live, 50% humidity (or less) – brings a sense of optimism: finally we’re through the winter and can now go outdoors without worrying about being frozen to death or being blown off the face of the Earth. This week we at last had that feeling, because we had two days in a row of good summery weather. So, yes, optimism.
But this week has also brought sadness. The passing away of Nelson Mandela. Closer to home, we’ve had the death of eminent Australian contemporary artist Martin Sharp at the age of 71. It might be just a little strange to put these two names in the same paragraph, but I think it’s apt, not because of these two men having made similar contributions to the world – they didn’t – but because both lived such genuine and genuinely inspiring lives.
Martin Sharp was – and no doubt will continue to be for some time – Australia’s answer to Andy Warhol. There’s plenty written about him, and there’s certainly been quite a few thoughtful and informed obituaries, including this one from his colleague and friend Richard Neville. To many, Sharp will be remembered for being a founding member of Oz, a radical and irreverent magazine – today we’d call it a zine – that lampooned authority and tradition, particularly the church, including conservative attitudes to sexuality. He also designed some of the most iconic rock-music album covers from the 1960s/70s. Later, he’d become an obsessed champion of Tiny Tim, Ginger Meggs, and Sydney’s site-of-thrills-and-fun Luna Park. He continued to practice for the rest of his life, though became fond of spending years, if not decades, touching up his earlier work.
Amazingly, through sheer luck, in early 2011 I interviewed Martin Sharp in his Sydney home for the Canberra Times. He was warm, generous with his time, thoughtful, always choosing his words carefully, not because he was guarded (though he might have been), but, I think, he just wanted to be clear. He chain-smoked through the entire morning, constantly rolling homemade cigarettes, the tobacco in a bowl in the table as though it was merely just some kind of herb that he was about to use for cooking. I found him to be utterly unpretentious, and during the interview we spoke about his great love of Tiny Tim, Vincent Van Gogh (his life’s great inspiration), and that he thought the best art was being done by school children. He’d become religious in his old age, though in the broad, somewhat mystical sense that artists can become religious (I doubt he went to church), and I remember how he said that in certain contexts conservative thinking can be radical.
I asked him if he had any modern-day heroes, and without blinking an eye he said, ‘Susan Boyle.’ I knew only a little of Boyle, but when I got back home made sure to learn more about her. What was it about this UK talent-show contestant that had intrigued Sharp so? I remember how he said that she’d given her all, everything, put her whole being on the line, words to that affect. So I googled her and was amazed to find myself getting goose-bumps. When I could drag my way from Youtube I wrote up the interview and the resultant feature article – it wasn’t so much about Martin Sharp but about a new (at the time) gallery and arts facility in Goulburn called South Hill, of which Sharp was the patron – and I also wrote a short piece on how Sharp had given me goose-bumps while telling me about his love for Boyle.
Just before I left Martin Sharp’s house that January day, he gave me a copy of a Tiny Tim album that he’d produced (at considerable expense). For some reason I’ve never listened to it; perhaps I just didn’t want to take it out of its resolutely plastic-wrapped sleeve. Maybe I just wanted to keep it as perfect as it had been when it was given to me. Every time I saw the CD in my collection I thought to myself, Wow, what an amazing day that was.
But I’m listening to it now. It’s hilarious. But also important: Tiny Tim, just like Susan Boyle, gives every fibre of his being to his performances.
Thanks, Martin, for your time, your wise words, and, above all else, your art.
If I make it to 71 I’ll be sure to remember that morning with you.