HARBOUR VIEW: Artist and writer Gavin Fry at lunch in his “home port” with Scott Bevan. Picture: Simone De PeakGAVIN Fry gazes through the forest of masts at the Newcastle Cruising Yacht Club’s marina, surveyingthe harbour.
The 72-year-old writer, publisher and artist is looking at not just the water but something that flows through his paintings.
Fry finds inspiration in harbour life, in the buildings around its edges, and in the vessels that glide across it.His paintings are currently being exhibited at Cooks Hill Galleries.
For Newcastle viewers, the subjects are close to home.
The harbour landmarks, from Nobbys to the grain terminal, feature in Fry’s boldand geometric compositions, in an exhibition titled Home Port.
“There is a very basic rule, and that is ‘paint what you know’,” he explains while eating pumpkin risotto at The Wickham Boatshed.
Gavin Fry’s painting, “The Fort and the River”, on exhibition at Cooks Hill Galleries. Picture: Courtesy, Gavin Fry
“And I know about the harbour, I know about the sea, I know a bit about ships. It’s the thing I see all the time, I’m familiar with it. I love the forms, you could look at the [grain] silo from every different angle and it’s totally different.
“When you see something across the water, you’re able to get a perspective and a clarity you don’t get purely on the land.”
In the past few years, Fry has gained a new perspective and clarity in his own working life.
Duringhis long career in ’s cultural landscape, he has written books about art and artists,and he’sheld senior positions in galleries and museums, including about 12 years as the director of Newcastle Museum.
But by picking up the brushes and making marks on canvas to depict the harbour, Fry has returned to his own creative home port. He has re-engaged with what led him to a career in the arts in the first place.
Writer, publisher and artist Gavin Fry. Picture: Simone De Peak
GAVIN Fry was born in 1946 in Melbourne, the youngest of three children of a police detective father and a mother who loved art.
For young Gavin, being surrounded by pictures was part of everyday life. His mother and maternal grandmother knew local artists who were making a name for themselves, such as Danila Vassilieff and Adrian Lawlor, and their paintingsended up in the Fry home.
“The paintings we had at home weren’t like the pictures other people had at home, if they had pictures in any way at all,” he recalls, adding that their presence taught him “art is a nice thing to have around, and it made your life more interesting”.
It also provided source material for later inFry’s life. Forhis Master of Arts, Frywrote athesis on Adrian Lawlor.
When he was at school, Fry says,“I really wanted to be an artist, but I have to say I knew that being an artist was a fairly precarious occupation”.
He enrolled in courses to become an art teacher. But once he was working in high schoolsin regional Victoria, Fry was unfulfilled.
“I liked teaching, but I didn’t like schools very much,” he says. “They were just dull. I’d look at the principal or senior master and say, ‘Do I aspire to that?Is that what I really want to do with my life?’.I knew I wanted more. I wasn’t quite sure what ‘more’ was.”
While he was doing a little painting in his spare time, the demands of the job meant his creative energy was going into being a teacher. Painting drifted further away, but the study of it came closer.
Fry and his new wife, Colleen, a fellow teacher, moved to Melbourne. He landed a job as an art lecturer at the State College of Victoria and headed to university for further study.Fryhad answeredthe “more” question. He wanted to work in galleries and museums, “and it all bowled on from there”.
WAR ART: Gavin Fry, with Gallipoli paintings by Sidney Nolan, in 1980.
In 1980, Fry received two job offers on the same day. He had a choice. Director of Bendigo Art Gallery. Or the curator of art at the n War Memorial.
“I had no idea what a bloody curator did!,” he recalls.
But Fry did know about n war art. As a boy, he wouldflick through his father’s collection of armed services Christmas books, which were illustrated by war artists, so“I knew all those pictures off by heart”.
Fry opted for the Memorial job. He was aged 34:“So I’mstarting behind most of my peers, andI knew I had to get ahead more quickly. I thought I’d learn more and pick up more in a big institution than I would in a small one.”
Through the Memorial, Frycame to knowsome of ’s best-known artists, such as Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and William Dargie.
He learnt more about the power of war art, how a paintersuch as Ivor Hele could portray abattlefield burial of three soldiers and say so much without words.
Gavin Fry at lunch with Scott Bevan. Picture: Simone De Peak
Frybegan telling the stories of artists and their place in n life, through writing. He has written more than 20 books.
“With the art books, I don’t go into great detail about apicture,” he says, addinghe avoids art theory.“If I write a book, I want to answer the questions ordinary people ask.If you can tell the stories of why something is so –and there is always a story there,and I like to tell the stories – then people can better understand what the picture is, and why it’s like it is.”
By the mid 1980s, Fry felt the urge to “kick things along”. So he, Colleen and their two sons spent a year in England. He did a Master of Philosophy at the University of Leicester, studying the architecture of recent British museums,“which was a good excuse to go around the countryside”.
But there was a deeper reason for doing the course.
With ’s bicentennial year approaching, Fryfigured the nation’s growing desire to look back would lead to new museums. He was right. In 1987, he becameinvolved in creating the n National Maritime Museum at Darling Harbour, as its deputy director.
While he relished the opportunity to work at a new museum, Fry doesn’t have salt water in his veins. He is not obsessed with ships(he much prefers cars), although he did own a small sailboat for a while in the 1990s:“One of the things I knew from the museum was … how much boats cost. Intimately how much they cost!And that would scare the pants off anyone!”
Gavin Fry, when he was the deputy director of the n National Maritime Museum.
By the early 1990s, Fry was exhausted from helping establish the maritime museum, and his marriage had ended. He headed to Canberra for a while, “playing being a publicservant”, before returning to Sydney to run a small museum at Fairfield.
Then in 1999, the director’s job at Newcastle Museum came up. Fry was interested:“I’d done the big museum. I’d done the really small one. And this was Goldilocks, this was the one in the middle. I thought it was big enough to do stuff, but not too big that you’d have to play politics all day long.”
Fryhad been to Newcastle before, in 1988. He’d been invited by a Navy friend to sail out of the harbour on HMASCanberra.
As he recalls that visit,Fry looks across to the Carrington wharves, where theWilliam the Fourthpaddle steamerreplica is berthed.
“I can still remember the bloodyWilliam the Fourthcoming alongside,” he says, wincing, of his day on the warship. “If I’d known then I was going to be responsible for that thing, I would have got in and sunk it!”
Gavin Fry, as the director of Newcastle Museum, photographed in 2009 in a former railway workshop at Honeysuckle, which now houses the museum. Picture: Simone De Peak
As museum director, Fry had to navigate the financial and logistical storms besetting the ship. But he had otherhuge challenges, including moving the museum from Newcastle West to the former railway workshops at Honeysuckle.
“Being immodest, it was my idea,” Fry says of the move. “I was riding my bike around there one day and looking in through the windows and thinking, ‘Great big spaces, look at the location’. The buildings were perfect.”
From the moment he peered through the windows to the official opening, a decade of planning, negotiations andcontroversies passed by: “I still think it was the right thing at the right time in the right place.”
Newcastle Museum opened in the new location in August 2011. Fry retired two months later.
“I was 65. I had so many things I wanted to do,” he explains. “I had a number of writing projects I was doing.”
Gavin Fry’s painting, “Leaving Newcastle”, on exhibition at Cooks Hill Galleries. Picture: Courtesy, Gavin Fry
However, Fry had learnt that when he immersed himself in telling the story of an artist’s life, it was counter-productive to him pursuing his own art: “You’re head is so full of what they do …you’re going to end up being influenced by them, even if it’s unconscious.”
But soon after he retired, Fry was in Victoria, and hismother and a friend encouraged himto start painting again.
He did a “trite little landscape”, but it was enough for him to think, “Yeah, maybe there is something for me to do here”. After a four-decade break, he was back to hisbrushes.
Now Fryis painting his “home port”. He has stayed in Newcastle primarily because of “true love”. He met his partner of about 13 years, Rebecca Gresham, at the art gallery.
But he also likes the “personality” of Newcastle and, as a place to paint, it offers “an infinite variety of subjects and textures”.
Gavin Fry. Picture: Simone De Peak
He will keep writing, but Fry is relishinghisrediscovered joy oftelling stories through painting.
“There’s nothing more satisfying than someone saying, ‘I really like that, and I’ll buy it’,” he says. “It’s not about the money, it’s that somebody wants it enough that they want to live with it.”