Shead, and the life of Malley The Age, June 20, 2005

Megan Backhouse speaks to Garry Shead, who turned hoax poetry into real-life paintings.
Photo: Rodger Cummins

Garry Shead says it was getting dangerous just how much he started identifying with Ern Malley, the 1940s poet who both did, and didn’t, exist. Malley’s evocative verse might have been penned as a hoax but both the man and his modernist poems have taken on a life of their own.

Malley, as the story went, died of Graves’ disease and, over the past three years, while Shead became increasingly infatuated with the mythical motor mechanic’s “pure poetry”, he started feeling Graves’-like aches and pains.

He stopped sleeping and started to wonder whether he was to suffer the same fate as Malley, the imaginary idiot-savant poet concocted by the conservative Sydney poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart, who sought to lampoon the modernism championed by Max Harris’ literary magazine, Angry Penguins. The irony was that the fake avant-garde poems became McAuley and Stewart’s best-known work. Many literary experts argue that the poems might have been created to expose modernism’s pretentiousness, but they have a form and beauty that the two conservatives could not suppress.

Shead’s paintings – lyrical and colourful as they are – are full of coffins and death-bed scenes, and his ceramics are towering urns that conjure up thoughts of cremation and ashes.

Shead, whose reputation has been growing since he began showing paintings based on D. H.Lawrence’s Kangaroo in 1992, describes the new works as “heavy” and suspects they reflect his own experiences as well as those of Malley. “I think, for the first time, I was dealing with mortality, approaching death,” he says. “I’m 63 and you start to be aware that, maybe, you’ve got another 10 or 15 years of life.”

Shead’s fears of Graves’ disease were unfounded, but in other ways he relates to the fictional poet who became his muse. While the biggest of Shead’s new paintings comes with a price tag of $330,000, the NSW artist says he has been through “years and years of struggle”, where he would have jumped at a “comfortable job” if he could have got one.

He had such a job in the 1960s when he worked at the ABC, first as a scenic artist and then as an assistant film editor, but he was impulsive and had an innate sense that that wasn’t the life for him. “There were all the emotional, romantic things that 20-year-olds go through, looking for a woman, a reason for living,” he says. “Some people know exactly what they’re doing, (but) I wasn’t an intelligent person like that. I had to really stumble around, like in the (Ern Malley) poem, (I) stumbled and stammered.”

He did some freelance cartooning (for Oz, The Bulletin and The Sydney Morning Herald) and “dull jobs” like painting houses for friends. And, on reflection, he says people who had comfortable employment, such as teaching, didn’t take their art so seriously. “It has to be all or nothing – a total commitment.”

Gradually, it becomes plain that underneath the ever-polite, softly-spoken, quick-to-smile Garry Shead, there is a rather less eager-to-please and more uncompromising artist. With the ceramic urns, for example, Shead wanted them to be cut open in areas and buckled in others, and with the clay sometimes folding out over itself.

When he began collaborating with potter Lino Alvarez at Hill End in NSW on the urns, each one of which took Alvarez three days to make, Shead would direct the potter on how he wanted him to “destroy” the just-finished pieces, while the clay was still wet. “But that didn’t work – we did about 40 pots that I just smashed,” Shead says. “So then he built the urns to that height (about one metre) and I would start destroying them. He was pulling his hair out, he had to go out, he couldn’t bear to watch, I ruined lots and we nearly split up. Finally he came around and I think he is quite happy.”

However, Shead says he won’t make ceramics again, as it is “too hard”. He has come to the end of his Ern Malley journey now anyway, with his current show the final in a series of exhibitions around this theme that he has shown in Adelaide, Sydney and Bathurst.

“I think this is it, I have nothing more to say. I don’t search for themes but there are things that are in my head and I’ve just got to get them out, release them,” he says. “Ern Malley was unresolved. People involved in the hoax couldn’t see the purity of the intent, the cosmic intent, I suppose. It was the first time that the new spirit came into Australian literature – before that they (writers) were just describing what was there. McAuley and Stewart didn’t realise what they were doing, they were having such fun and that’s what art should be, it should have a lot of joy in it.”

The day after we speak, Shead is going back to Bundeena, where he lives with his wife, Judith Englert, and their 16-year-old daughter Lilla (he also has an older daughter, Gria, an artist who is showing work at a gallery just up the road from his own show).

He thinks he will start to paint “just day-to-day” aspects of life. “Washing up, cleaning the floor, they can be beautiful things. I have done them before but I haven’t shown them,” he says. “I’d like to do some landscapes too, not straight landscapes, not too photographic. I might try to do something without the figure, just colour and examining nature.”

But there’s no question of him taking his easel out of the studio and painting what he sees. “Oh no, no,” he says. “I’ve done that, I’m terrible at it. It wouldn’t be accurate. What we see isn’t the whole picture, it’s what we feel and all those other things.”