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Graeme Doyle (left) and Peter Wegner in front of Wegner's work. Image: Andrew Chapman.

The art of friendship

A friendship shared by two Melbourne-based artists has led to the creation of a series of portraits that explores the human condition and realities of ageing.

For the past 30 years painter and sculptor Peter Wegner has met with fellow artist Graeme Doyle to capture his image through a series of artworks.

Wegner first asked Doyle to sit for him in the mid-’80s. The two met at the Phillip Institute of Technology, a Melbourne art school, and bonded over their shared love of painting.

Since then, Wegner has created hundreds of works featuring Doyle, including paintings, prints, sculptures and drawings.

About once a week for the past three decades, Wegner has picked up Doyle and brought him to his studio, or taken his materials to the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s Sambell Lodge, where Doyle resides, to draw or paint there.

Doyle still recalls the first time he sat for Wegner: “We always got on well and Peter asked me one day if I could sit for a portrait. I think that was in his home … in Diamond Creek, down a slope. There was a shed there and he painted a portrait of me in the shed, if I remember correctly.”

Wegner’s work ‘The Red Suit’ (2004). Oil on canvas. Image: Supplied.

Wegner says he also visited Doyle’s house to create another portrait and then suggested they meet up again to paint some more. “Then it just became, ‘Oh, okay, I’ll see you next Thursday, we’ll have lunch, we’ll have a coffee and we’ll see each other’. And that was really the start of it.”

The pair use the sitting time to discuss music and philosophy. Passers-by might hear songs by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Bonnie Tyler coming from the studio.

Often, Wegner’s wife will tell the pair that they’re laughing too much and that she can hear them from downstairs.

But Wegner’s credentials as an artist are no laughing matter. He took out the Gallipoli Art Prize in 2013 for his work Dog in a Gas Mask and won the 2016 Rick Amor Drawing Prize for his drawing Three Days with EM.

One of his paintings of Doyle also brought him acclaim; Wounded Poet earned him the 2006 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize. The judges noted the honesty of the piece, as well as the “compelling presence of the subject” in the portrait.

Wegner has since collated 100 drawings of the many he has made with Doyle as part of a collection called the Sambell Lodge Series.

He says overall, the works act as both a chronicle of Doyle’s life and a way to trace his own development as an artist. “It picks up all those frailties of what it is to be human,” he says. “It is the human condition.”

Those same themes are at the heart of another of Wegner’s collections: The Centenarian Project. “It’s about that human condition of what it is to be 100 years old, what it is to live on this planet for 100 years,” he says.

The series began when Wegner first started drawing his aunt Rita after she turned 100. The last drawing he did of her was just before her death at age 104.

“The only time she was in hospital was the last week of her life,” Wegner says. “While I was doing this drawing of Rita, I thought, ‘You know, there must be a lot of other people who are active and sharp of wits and living in their own house independently at this age’. And oh, my goodness, I have found so many amazing 100-year-olds who are active and in their community and doing things. It’s extraordinary.”

Wegner is now halfway to his goal of drawing 100 centenarians. “The idea of painting [or] drawing a centenarian … is to also have a chat with them and find out about their life and why [they] think [they’ve] lived for so long, and what sort of things have happened to [them] in that time. It’s a great afternoon to spend with someone.

“I’m very, very privileged, to be honest, to be able to do this. Every time I meet a 100-year-old, I think, ‘Isn’t this great? I can enter somebody’s life … who’s been on this Earth for 100 years and talk to them and have a great conversation’. I’m pretty lucky.”

Wegner says one of the fondest memories from his time spent with the centenarians he has drawn is that while they weren’t rich, they lived rich lives.

The same can be said of Doyle, who has stretched his creative muscles in more than one arena. On top of being a painter, he is also a sculptor, draughtsman, printmaker, poet, lyricist and musician. He calls his many talents his bag of horrors that he presents to the world.

He tells me he has a saying: “I’ve been born painting like the devil.”

Doyle describes himself as an art addict. “I’ve just been doing it nearly all my life really – trying to do it anyway.” He still remembers trying to perfect a cowboy with bow legs when he was a child.

The human figure still features heavily in Doyle’s works, as does distortion. “I use distortion and a lot of it comes from my imagination. One of the [drawings] I was working on just a few minutes ago is very strange. You know, and I think ‘Where on earth did that come from?’ It’s not normal. I’m not a normal artist.”

One of the things Doyle appreciates about his friendship with Wegner is that it helps to keep art central in his life.

Wegner’s work ‘The Sufferer’ (2005). Oil on canvas. Image: Supplied.

It’s also one of the things he appreciates about the staff at Sambell Lodge. “I’ve really just landed on my feet [here]. I just like it,” he said. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself, been looked after, and all I have to do is do my work.”

The Brotherhood of St Laurence’s acting general manager of retirement and ageing, Mara Erhardt-Rumpe, says it’s important for people to maintain their skills and interests after they move into residential aged care and to ensure they remain a part of their community.

“Our focus is to discover what each person finds meaningful and find ways to enable residents to live the life they value,” Erhardt-Rumpe says. “Our approach maximises people’s autonomy and choice over their lives, drawing on their interests.”

Creating art is a little harder than it once was for Doyle. He now must rest before he sits for a portrait and push himself to work at his own craft.

Doyle tells me he has high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and a heart condition, as well as problems with his lungs, liver and kidneys. He also has schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia and manic depression.

Despite this, Doyle continues to pick up the paintbrush and pencil. “I’ve just got to keep going,” he says. “I have to just keep going working in the arts. It’s deeply ingrained in me.”

Doyle and Wegner are working on one last big project together: a 2.5m long by 1.5m high painting, oil on canvas.

Wegner continues to pick Doyle up from Sambell Lodge in Clifton Hill and take him to the studio to work all day, before making the trip back in the evening.

Doyle says Wegner spends most of these days in the studio, working on the piece, without much rest.

Wegner says the work will need three or four more sittings before it’s finished. He assures me that, despite this being his last major work of Doyle, the two will still meet regularly, at least once a week, and the 30-year-long tradition of discussing art while creating it will continue.

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