How often have you stood next to someone at an exhibition to hear them exclaim at a painting, “This work is terrible!” as you, yourself were thinking, “Wow, if only I could do something that well.” Graeme Myrteza has a very strong personal belief that the appreciation of art is such a personal endeavour. As he puts it, “We’d all be married to the same sheila if it was as easy as that.”
There are no airs and graces at all about Graeme. He tells it like it is. Growing up on a dairy farm, Graeme was a farmer all his working life. He started, as you do in the rich red earth of Thorpdale, growing potatoes. And then he saw an opportunity to export carrots to Asia. He imported the seeds, grew the vegetables with a terrific shelf life, found markets in Singapore, KL and Japan and bundled the carrots into shipping containers where six weeks later, he proudly tells me, when they arrived in Asia they were as fresh as when they were on loading. But then the Japanese recession hit, and Graeme had to find a market for 200 acres’ worth of carrots. It wasn’t easy – but he managed.
By this stage he was in his mid-50s and looking to slow down. And it was at this time that his son, Brett, needed him the most. Because Brett was dying after a long illness.
On the long days and nights, as Graeme sat next to his bed-ridden son, he started to sketch. Graeme had last sketched as a boy of 15 when he scribbled on the back of calendars or any bit of paper lying around. Remember when you learned how to write and the teacher would get you to draw a picture of a red car driving over a hill so that you could learn the words, ‘red’, ‘car’ and ‘hill’? Well, Graeme loved the drawing so much, the learning of how to write was incidental. As the class became more proficient with writing the teacher stopped the drawing. Graeme asked when they might be able to draw again. “Surely you have grown out of that by now,” came the reply.
Whilst the education system didn’t encourage him to draw, his mother did, but the realities of life struck when he started to farm. He hadn’t picked up a drawing pencil since. But here he was drawn back to the solace of creating an image on the paper. He showed me some of his early drawings sketched as he sat by his son’s bed and what I was frankly amazed at was how quickly the drawings graduated from almost stick figures to well-formed representations of characters of the bush. He tells me that he showed a few of his drawings to artist mates who told him he should start to paint.
Brett never saw his father’s paintings, because as a kind of therapy Graeme only started to paint when Brett passed away. Essentially self-taught he did ask friends who were artists to be critical of his work. Phil Henshall, a fellow artist, was reticent about being blunt but Graeme encouraged him to tell the truth, “I am 60 years old, I haven’t got 30 years to learn that s@#!, tell me now.” And learn Graeme did.
He took himself and his wonderfully supportive wife on long pilgrimages out into the bush. He loved looking at how the light brought each scene to life. “If a painting hasn’t got light in it, it hasn’t got a life.” In the flies and the heat he would absorb the feeling of the bush. If he had his way he would do all his work plein air but that is not practical.
He started to paint – landscapes in oil. Once again I marvelled at how quickly he mastered his technique. He takes me through a photo album where he shows each of his paintings. Each double page has four paintings. I think we were only on the fourth or fifth double page before he tells me that one of the paintings was sold. It was probably only the next couple of double pages before it was not so much the paintings that he had sold, but the ones that hadn’t sold, or the ones he donated to be auctioned at charities.
But he still wasn’t sure that he was meant to be an artist. He thought maybe he should be out there playing golf. When this same photo album that I am looking at had only around 60 or 70 paintings in it, Graeme counted the pages and found there were 150. He told himself that he would fill the album and then make a decision. “And I have been going ever since,” he declares.
He gets ideas as he travels around, sketch pad always at the ready. He will head back to his studio and stand in front of the canvas, an image of the painting he will create in his mind, and will draw around 6 lines, just to get the composition right. He says, “What is the point of a detailed drawing if you’re going to cover it all up?” And then he will start with his palette knife covering the canvas with thick daubs of oil paint. He is prolific. “I am passionate about painting; I love the smell of the paints, turps, canvas and above all – the challenge and satisfaction of capturing the dramatic play of light on the gum trees, mountains, rivers and valleys of our magnificent country”.
Each of Graeme’s paintings has Brett’s initials painted onto it. You will find them on a piece of bark peeling off a gum tree stressed by the heat, or in a stream reflecting the light filtering through the trees, or even in the clouds. But you will always find them. Because they are so much a part of the story.