Garry Shead - Bali Bound

Garry Shead is leading an intensive art retreat in Bali this year. ATL gets the skinny.


Garry Shead - The Letter

Garry Shead paints lyrical, emotive, dreamlike figurative paintings. He draws on the techniques of the old masters, Titian in particular (“I always go back to Titian”), yet his work is quintessentially Australian, exploring and mythologising subjects and narratives such as DH Lawrence’s Kangaroo, the Royal Suite (based on Queen Elizabeth’s first visit) the Ern Malley suite, and most recently a series inspired by his uncle Maurice O’Shea who was a legendary pioneering winemaker in Pokolbin. His work – paintings, etchings, drawings and even ceramics - is suffused with a heightened sense of emotion – love, joy, sadness, happiness - and something akin to magic. He paints marvellous pictures, in the true sense of the word.


Garry Shead - I Know I Shall Be Raised Up On The Vertical Banners Of Praise 2006

Professor Sasha Grishin, ANU is an authority on Shead’s oeuvre. He writes, “Once you enter the peculiarity of Garry Shead’s lyrical and expressive pictorial language the whole drama with its power of human emotion unfolds …”. From personal tragedy (Shead lost his wife Judit to cancer in 2007) to golden memories of childhood, in his paintings figures drift through the landscape and dance in the sky. As Professor Grishin says: “Floating angels and hovering Muses, enigmatic smiles, sacrificial mermaids and kangaroos in flames …” Perhaps Garry Shead is the Marc Chagall of contemporary Australia (if indeed there can be such a thing)?

“I had a chance to meet Chagall once – I stayed in Vence at the Australia Council studio,” confesses Shead. “I didn’t want to meet him as I was going through my Dali period … I’ve done some silly things in my life!” he laughs, ruefully, acknowledging Chagall as an important influence.

I’m sitting with Shead and his partner, musician Rose Gissing, at The Cosmopolitan, a Double Bay coffee shop that’s been there forever, weathering the ebbs and flows of fashion and finance, pitstop for the rich and infamous, the notorious and not-so-notorious, well-heeled Eastern suburbs ladies refuelling after beauty treatments (or before cosmetic procedures), starlets and real estate agents, bankers and shopgirls, divas and auctioneers. Shead is instantly recognisable – his tall thin frame, his gentle face and wispy hair and signature round glasses. Rose is lovely and younger. They arrive and leave our interview holding hands. There’s something otherworldly about them, or perhaps of this world but rare.


Garry Shead in front of his painting Petit Testament 2003. Photo: Greg Weight

Shead describes his method of work which includes meditation. “Meditation is a good way of getting people into the right state, a semi-spiritual state,” he says shyly, not wanting to make too big a deal about it. He speaks of painting in a trancelike state, but before this happens he has a plan for a picture. “It’s at the point when you know what you are trying to do,” he explains. When he’s done drawings, worked on it, thought about the subject in depth and so on. For Shead, drawing is the start of everything, and it’s this lesson he brings to his teaching. “Drawing is not just representative,” he says. He uses techniques like left-handed drawing, drawing with the eyes closed, looking at something else while drawing. In previous art retreats (conducted with friend and fellow artist Adam Rish and run at his cousin Bill Shead’s resort Arajilla on Lord Howe Island) he’s taken participants down to the beach to fossick for shells, “more or less saying that you can make art from anything, it’s there around you.”

I confess to a kind of dyslexia when it comes to drawing, a frustrating lack of ability. Ha, say Shead and Rose in unison. Shead believes everyone can draw. He asks me to draw Rose – just to look at her as I draw, not down at the paper at all. I do. I now have a strange, Picasso-like head in my notebook that is not unappealing although it bares zero resemblance to its subject. (Perhaps that’s the point?) It’s a fun exercise, anyway. We are all laughing. “We just have a good time,” says Garry Shead of the previous art retreats, and that’s one of the reasons he likes to host them with good mate Rish. The Bali retreat will be in the same vein, but with more of a mystical element due to the rich Hindu culture there.


Clockwise from top: Ulan Danu Bratan on the crater Lake Bratan; Paddy Fields near Ubud, Bali; Flowers for Hindu Ceremony

The Retreat is being organised by Sydney-based art dealer Michael Nagy and artist Davina Stephens who grew up in Bali. Nagy is a good friend of Shead’s, hence the connection. Over the last few years, since closing his Sydney gallery, Nagy has fallen under the spell of Bali and was looking for a way to combine lifestyle & business. “Everyone else is doing yoga retreats – I thought, let’s do an art retreat!” he said over the phone when I called him for comment. The idea took a year to develop and the result is this very first of what Nagy hopes will be a string of Fine Art Retreats (“in Bali, Vietnam and maybe in India”), held in the beautiful, traditional, atmospheric surrounds of the Warwick Ibah Luxury Villas & Spa in the heart of Ubud (the spiritual heart of Bali), where the sound of rushing water mingles with Gamelan music and fireflies float up from the bend in the river at night.

The Retreat will be limited to just eight people, guaranteeing one on one tuition. This is pretty special – Shead’s major paintings sell for 200-300 thousand dollars, he’s won the Archibald Prize for portraiture, the Dobell Prize for drawing, is represented in the National Gallery of Australia and all state galleries along with numerous private and corporate collections in Australia and internationally. Add to that, Davina Stephens’ local knowledge, Michael Nagy’s market savvy, fine food (caterer Lynley Marston is providing picnic lunches for plein air sessions) and cultural insights and stories from guru Ida Bagus Oka. Starting from $3775 per person (including 7 nights accommodation, all tuition, all meals, guides, talks, transfers) it’s not cheap, but surely worth it …


The Retreat will be based at the Warwick Ibah Luxury Villas and Spa

For more information go to
Bali Art Week Intensive with Garry Shead runs 8-15th May 2012