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Vincent van Gogh (as a yoof): a hero to many

Vincent van Gogh (as a yoof): a hero to many – imagine being able to meet him.

It is a big adventure, this writing life.  There’s the adventure in the stories: characters experiencing things, discovering things, learning things; overcoming and becoming.

Then there’s the adventure of conceiving stories, writing stories, redrafting stories (repeat ad infinitum if necessary), before sending them out until an editor takes a shine to a particular piece and puts it amongst his or her pages.  Then there’s the adventure of feedback.  Who will like what?  Or will no-one like any of it?  Or will there be no feedback at all?

But there’s more: the places writing has taken me, as in real places.  A homestead out of Braidwood.  A gatekeeper’s cottage in Launceston.  The writers’ house at Bundanon beside the Shoalhaven River.  The monastic Varuna in the Blue Mountains.  And, most recently, the Australian Defence Force Academy, courtesy of UNSW Canberra.

Then there are the people I’ve met, other writers, artists of all kinds.  The conversations over coffees, lunches, glasses of wine, dinners even!  It doesn’t take me long to be enthralled by those who are far ahead in this game; I become besotted.  It is, to tell you the truth, one of the most exciting things: to spend time with extraordinarily creative souls.

I have been so fortunate.  A highlight?

In January 2011, as part of a piece for the Canberra Times, I found myself in the Sydney home of eminent contemporary – or ‘pop’ – artist Martin Sharp.  All morning we talked about the things that mattered to him: his great love of Vincent van Gogh, Tiny Tim, and, a little surprisingly, UK talent-show contestant Susan Boyle; about how he thought the best art came from school children; about how his thinking has evolved, his relatively newfound religiosity.  ‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘conservative thinking is radical.’  This from the man who was once involved with Oz Magazine, whose London editors would end up being jailed as part of the infamous ‘Obscenity Trials’.

At midday, after he farewelled me, as I walked up his driveway, I thought – and I distinctly remember it – that this would be go down as one of my favourite days.  Here was a great artist, but one without a skerrick of pretension.  It was as though I’d just spent the morning with a slightly kooky but utterly charming uncle (who chain-smoked).

So, dear writing, thank you for the adventures thus far.

And, dear Martin Sharp, thank you for everything you gave us.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 14 December 2013.)

Martin Sharp circa 2011 (Image credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

Martin Sharp circa 2011 (Image credit: The Sydney Morning Herald)

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.

A cover of Oz by Martin Sharp featuring Bob Dylan

A cover of Oz by Martin Sharp featuring Bob Dylan, 1967

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.



The cover of Oz number 23, August 1969

What do a pair of lawyers, a country homestead, an iconic Australia pop artist, a massive merino, a man with a ukulele, an Archibald Prize-winning water-colourist, and a mythical yellow house have in common?

To find the answer we’ll have to go time-travelling.  It’s 1960s Sydney and a young girl opens a copy of Oz, the infamous antiauthoritarian magazine which would put its founders in jail for obscenity.  An advertisement: Wanted, Nude Model for a Martin Sharp collage.  The girl thinks she could give it a go so rings the number; within days she’s standing in a studio, throwing the required shapes with her body.  When the session is over she’s given “twenty quid”, taken out for lunch, and then sent home.  No ramifications.  Except, it seems, one.


Fast-forward five decades and we’re sitting in a crumbling early nineteenth-century homestead called South Hill.  The homestead and its various outbuildings, including a sheering shed, a barn, and “heritage” chook-yards, sit high on a hill adjacent the southern free-way exit to Goulburn.  Look one way and there’s a sobering view of the abattoir; look another way it’s the rolling north-eastern edge of the Monaro.  Just there, however, almost touchable, is the bitumen rush of the Hume Highway as it impatiently skirts Australia’s first in-land city, except it’s really just a town, a town that most Canberrans associate with pit-stops at a ubiquitous fast-food restaurant and gawking at the concrete Big Merino.

South Hill, the property, isn’t overly manicured.  It doesn’t smell of money, its soul hasn’t been destroyed by renovation.  Uncut red geraniums sprawl here and there; strummed acoustic music comes from somewhere nearby.  I like being here, especially as I’m talking with Linda Gumbert, an articulate, fiercely intelligent but gregarious sixty-plus-year-old woman.  Gumbert, who appears ridiculously fit for her age, is wearing blue jeans and a tight white T-shirt with ETERNITY across the front; it’s the sort of T-shirt you’d expect to find on a thinking woman from the city, a thinking woman who was once a girl who saw an ad in a magazine.

“You’ll want to ask me about how I know Martin Sharp,” she says, mischievously.

I ask her.  She tells me her story.  But Gumbert’s day with Australia’s most revered pop artist is only part of a much bigger story, one that is just beginning.

More time-travelling.

At the turn of the millennium, Linda Gumbert and her husband Roland, both lawyers based in Sydney, had a hankering that they might like to invest in a country town.  “We chose Goulburn deliberately because it’s accessible and we thought it might take off.’  Gumbert laughs; there’s much knowing in her wide-eyed face, but there’s also something of the teenaged girl that once was, an obvious delight in the world.  “The other thing that’s attractive about Goulburn is it’s not full of teddy-bear shops and an antique store on every corner.  When you swing into the main-street you park beside a sheep truck.  It filled our desire for something real.”

How did South Hill come to being in the Gumberts’ hands?

“Quite by chance,” says Linda, as if she can’t quite believe that she and her husband have ended up with the place, “we picked up the newspaper and saw that this place was for sale.  The auction was in two days.  It was owned by the local Anglican minister – a bit of a bed-and-breakfast thing, some pictures on the walls, a few artsy soirées.  We got some advice that said don’t buy it.  But we bought it anyway, because we knew better!”  Gumbert laughs again, giving a clear signal that when she wants to do something she just bloody well goes and does it.

“The house needs a million dollars which we don’t have, it’s freezing cold in winter and boiling hot in summer.  We don’t know anything about sheep or fencing.  We had to do something – we thought of having a performing arts centre, but we settled on a gallery.”

The couple admit to not having a background in the arts, just an unshakeable belief that healthy societies embrace creativity with open arms.  They set about scoring a patron.  “I reminded Roland that I once took my clothes off for Martin Sharp,” Linda Gumbert explains.  “Maybe we should speak to him about how to open a fine-art gallery?  I was too scared to make a phone call, so I wrote a letter and said, you wouldn’t remember me but we’re starting this gallery in Goulburn and do you want to give me a ring.  He rang me back a few days later and said, I remember you really well and still have the photos – come over.”

Linda and I take a break and, together with Roland (who’s handsome in a way that suggests he might know more about farming than he likes to let on), we do a tour of the three rooms of the gallery part of the main house, and then through the rest of the rooms.  At the heart of the place, above a glassed-in courtyard space, hang two massive banners Martin Sharp produced to celebrate Tiny Tim, the American ukulele player most of us remember as the funny-looking bloke who sung ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ in an unearthly falsetto.

“When you get Martin Sharp to be your patron,” Roland Gumbert tells me, “you also get his great love of Tiny Tim.”  In fact one room at South Hill is filled with Tiny Tim and other 1960s memorabilia: paintings, books, photographs, odds and ends.  A glass hallway cabinet displays original copies of Oz magazine.  It’s hard not to get the impression that the Gumberts believe that this new, potentially staid decade needs something of a much earlier, more liberal era.

I’m shown around the grounds.  An American-born Sydney artist called Rudy Kistler is currently working on a body of work in a shed; he appears in floppy hat with a handful of raspberries.  Peter Royles, a folk musician and “original Yellow House member” (whatever that is) who happens to live in Goulburn, practices in another shed.  There are plans to hold open-air concerts in a natural bowl high up on a ridge.

“You’ll have to go to Sydney to interview Martin,” Linda Gumbert requires of me.  “He wants to turn South Hill into Yellow House!”  I really have no idea what she’s talking about so I nod politely, hoping that she doesn’t see through me, except Linda and Roland Gumbert are perceptive people, and I’m twenty years younger than them, so they’d know, they’d know.

Linda Gumbert explains that in Sharp they didn’t only get a patron but someone who is inordinately connected to the arts world – through Sharp they were put on to local photographer Jon Lewis and another “original Yellow House member”, who then introduced the Gumberts to Cherry Hood, the Archibald Prize-winning portrait painter who lives nearby.

Back home I Google “Martin Sharp Yellow House”.  Apparently Yellow House was a terrace in Potts Point.  In the sixties it was a hang-out for a wide range of artists including Brett Whitely, Jim Sharman, Peter Weir, and folk-singer Gary Shearston, amongst many others.  The walls were painted in all sorts of colours, something about a train coming out of a fireplace.  It seems that it was one part university grouphouse, one part hippy love den, and one part scary bohemian arts happening; it feels like the ground zero of radical Sydney.

My mind is spinning.  I really do need to interview Martin Sharp.


Cherry Hood and her portrait of pianist Simon Tedeschi, which won the 2002 Archibald Prize

First, however, let’s hear from Cherry Hood about her role as South Hill curator.  Cherry Hood’s practice focuses on large painterly portraits, primarily of children and animals.  On top of winning the 2002 Archibald Prize for her study of pianist Simon Tedeschi, Hood’s work is represented in many Australian collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of NSW, and the BHP Billiton Collection.

What originally interested Hood in the Gumberts’ plans for South Hill?  “When Linda asked me to open an exhibition of paintings I naturally wanted to know more about what they wanted to achieve.  Their idea was wonderful; it was very exciting that a new gallery was to open here.  Our Regional Gallery is excellent but Goulburn needed at least one commercial space to compliment it.  So I wanted to help them fit-out the gallery and with choosing artists who are serious and dedicated.”

What about Martin Sharp’s apparent vision to bring Yellow House to South Hill – how does Hood see that unfolding?

“One of the great periods for art in Australia’s cultural history was when Yellow House was alive and well in Sydney.  Martin was inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s idea of bringing artists “to the South” to join him in his Yellow House, which is what he called his studio.”  (Ah, it’s becoming clearer now!)  “Vincent, like other artists, knew that good things happen when artists get together and brainstorm, artists inspire each other to greater things.  So Martin has seen a very nice synchronicity in this idea of a new Yellow House in Goulburn.  And while the walls may not get painted in bright colours or patterns every few days and the Pop Movement is long gone, South Hill has already become a meeting place and the Gumberts have already established an artist-in-residency program.”


A week later, I’m on the early-bird train to Sydney to meet Martin Sharp.  How has this happened?  It feels like South Hill has put a spell on me, one that’s saying follow all leads, never be afraid.  To manage my apprehension I’ve done more research: I’ve learnt that Sharp designed the influential album covers for sixties rock legends Cream, that he even wrote the lyrics for Cream’s most famous song, ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’, that Eric Clapton likes to visit his old friend (there’s a photograph at South Hill to prove it).

I’ve read how Sharp’s cartoons and illustrations were a central feature of Oz, both in Australia and London.  I know a little more about Martin Sharp’s passion for Tiny Tim – Sharp even produced some of his albums.  I’ve learnt that Sydney is besotted with their pop artist, and I get the impress that this man is Australia’s Andy Warhol and that his Yellow House might have been just like Warhol’s Factory.

The closer my train gets to Central the more my hands feel faint with nerves.  I take comfort in something Linda Gumbert told me: “Martin is a believer in the crossing of paths.  There are no mistakes.”

Martin Sharp...nowish.

Now I’m walking down the steep driveway of what would be a harbourside mansion should the owner be interested.  Martin Sharp, a slim man with longish grey hair that gives a hint to how he would have looked as a young creative provocateur in the sixties, greets me warmly, even tenderly, and welcomes me into his inherited home.  An artist who is doing work on Sharp’s extensive Tiny Tim archive makes us a cup of tea each and then we get down to business in his studio.  The room, as you’d expect, is filled with paintings and books although it’s darker than I’d imagined, a result of the wood panelling that surrounds us.

Sharp is erudite and deeply thoughtful if not a little rambly, though that might be due to a recent spell of ill health more than anything else.  We’re joined by a cat called Imelda, after Imelda Marcos, because the feline had a shoe obsession when she was a kitten.  Later Sharp will tell me why Susan Boyle, who unexpectedly was runner-up on reality TV show Britain’s Got Talent in 2008, is someone who should be admired: “She’s one of my great heroes.  Such courage, she turned the world around.”

So.  Why is Martin Sharp involved with South Hill?

“Because Linda Gumbert asked me and she said that I didn’t have to do anything.”  That’s it, that’s Sharp’s answer.  He doesn’t laugh, just rolls another of what will be an endless series of cigarettes, selecting tobacco from a ceramic bowl.  Perhaps realising that I need a more expansive answer, he mercifully adds, “I like the Gumberts very much.”  Sharp then tells me that when he was asked to be patron of South Hill he had to look up the word in an old dictionary.  “It’s got a different meaning that you’d normally think,” he warns.

I have an old dictionary and have since looked it up.  He’s right.

As patron, does Sharp have a vision for South Hill?  “I’m thoughtful about the place, put it that way.”  Again he pauses.  At last he continues: “South Hill has enormous potential as an ‘Off Broadway’ exhibiting place.  You could start exhibitions there and then they go on to other places.’’

An ‘Off Broadway’ exhibiting place – how’s that for a concept.

“Linda’s a very charismatic person,” Sharp goes on, now without encouragement.  “She’s a power-house.  I love her spirit.  South Hill has charisma.”  A new cigarette is lit.  “I can see the place almost being like a college.”  He would like to see South Hill hold a children’s art competition.  “The great exhibitions that go on at the end of the school year – you know, it’s remarkable work.  I’ve seen some astounding stuff, better than the art gallery shows.”

The artist points to a series of paintings hanging around the top of the walls of his studio which he did when he was sixteen years old.  “They’re not bad,” he says.  “I’m impressed and I get more impressed as time goes by.”

Point made.


Martin Sharp, Yellow House, 1970-1971 (photo by Rennie Ellis, courtesy of the National Library of Australia)

What about this whole notion of recreating Yellow House down at South Hill?  “Well, it would be a lovely idea in theory, but…”  Sharp gives out an impish laugh, as if he’s gently telling me that he’s not going to do all the work.  “Yellow House very much came out of the sixties.  The theory was if you make a good environment, if you can create a garden where all sorts of things can grow…”  He trails off as if enjoying the memory.  “It was held together by a high degree of visual tuning and intelligence within its decoration, and then within that all sorts of things like films for show, poetry readings, concerts, cabaret emerged.  There’s great potential down at South Hill to do the same thing.”

But can it happen in good old Goulburn town, a place where, so I’m told, even the hospital’s surgeon has tattoos?

“Vincent Van Gogh, the patron saint of artists, said a good painting does good wherever it is.  I love that.”  Sharp asks me if I’ve read Van Gogh’s letters?  No.  He sucks in his breath through his teeth as if he’s just witnessed a bad car accident.  He says, “You should.  Vincent said, ‘There will be an art of the future and it will be so lovely and beautiful that we’ll give up our youth for it but will surely gain serenity.’  He felt that it would come from the popular side of art.”

I have to ask about Tiny Tim.

Martin Sharp first saw the unique if not eccentric musician at the Albert Hall in London in 1968 and decided that he was in the presence of genius.  “Tiny was a master of the whole language of the popular song, a pioneer post-modernist, if you want to look at it that way.  I think he’s as great as van Gogh, I really do, he’s an artist of the first magnitude.  He was time-travelling all the time.”

Time-travelling: I haven’t heard that term in ages.

Perhaps South Hill is time-travelling, from its original pastoral purpose to countrified bed-and-breakfast establishment, from fine-art gallery and residency complex to – with hard work as well as a good dose of luck, even a little magic – Australia’s new wildly influential Yellow House.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

The best thing is that none of this is happening in an image-obsessed inner-city suburb but right on the edge of our oldest in-land town, which is just up the road from the National Capital.  All because two supremely motivated people believe in the inherent value of the arts and that creativity can and should happen anywhere, and this belief is going to be pursued until the cow’s come home.  Meanwhile, Cherry Hood will skilfully curate, and Martin Sharp – rather dreamily, it must be said – will encourage and protect.

Thank God the young Linda Gumbert liked reading obscene magazines.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, on 5 March 2011.  Thanks to Linda and Roland Gumbert, and Cherry Hood.  Much gratitude to Martin Sharp.  Never have I ever thought that I’d end up meeting such good people and writing a story like the one above.)


This summer I’ve had two episodes that have knocked me for a six, particularly the second, because it came out of the blue.

The first episode: driving along country roads when a song began playing: a mash-up of Primal Scream’s paean to partying, ‘Loaded’, with the ridiculously bombastic ‘Epic’ by Faith No More.  Neither song usually does it for me, to my mind they haven’t aged well, but the way the DJ, Dunproofin’, had overlaid the two tunes to create something so fresh and joyful – well, there went the tingling of my skin, the blood-rush to my spine.

The second episode: recently I spent a morning with Australian pop-art guru Martin Sharp at his Sydney home.  We talked about his love of Tiny Tim, who Sharp considers a genius in the order of Van Gogh, but then he floored me when he said that Susan Boyle, of Britain’s Got Talent fame, was equally as important.

Back home, I googled my way to a YouTube video of Boyle’s original live performance of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ from Les Miserables. Now, some facts about me: I rarely watch TV, reality programs leave me as cold as a cadaver, and show tunes are invariably so saccharine as to be vacuous.  But I forced myself to watch Boyle sing; I needed to know why someone of Martin Sharp’s stature considers her brilliant.

Susan Boyle, who has the physique of a front-row forward, walks out onto the theatre stage.  Her hair looks like it’s been cut by meat-axe and somehow she’s squeezed herself into a potato-sack frock.  She faces the immediate derision of the judges and the audience.  Innocently, but confidently, she says she wants to be like Elaine Paige.  She dares to announce that she’ll sing ‘I Dream A Dream’; eyes roll into backs of heads.

Then, however, Susan Boyle opens her mouth, she starts to sing.  Her singing is heartfelt and precise, it’s passionate without being histrionic, she knows exactly what she’s doing (Sharp is right).  Within seconds the audience is standing, applauding and hollering.  From contempt they’re now in love, rapturous even.  The three judges can’t stop smiling; two of them begin crying.  And then, as Boyle carries on with the song, hitting the sustained upward notes, there it goes, the tingling of my skin, the blood-rush to my spine.

Goosebumps: it’s a sure sign of life.

And, perhaps, genius.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 12 February 2011.)

There will be an art

of the future

and it will be so lovely

and beautiful

that we’ll give up our youth

for it but will surely gain serenity.

– Vincent van Gogh,

as quoted by Australian pop-art guru

Martin Sharp

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