At 100, artist and digger Guy Warren embraces mortality but reveals there’s lots of life – and art – in him yet.
At 100, artist and digger Guy Warren embraces mortality but reveals there’s lots of life – and art – in him yet.

‘I’m astonished my life has lasted so long’

The interview with Guy Warren starts with the obvious question, since he turned 100 on April 16, although that question could be offensive or at the very least, indelicate.

Does Guy's prolific brushstroke, bursting into life-affirming art for most of his 100 years, ease fears of death, soothe anxieties about mortality? Guy has left such powerful marks of his existence, so do these protect against becoming nothing?

Guy bursts out laughing: "You're always conscious of your mortality. I've been conscious of my mortality ever since I joined the army when I was 21."

Guy lives in Sydney's Greenwich, in a leafy glen, surrounded by his artwork, and a vista of bushland that could be the inspiration for his work. Although it wouldn't be the only one, because he served with the AIF in the jungle in Queensland, then New Guinea and Bougainville during WWII, experiences that shaped him.

But he's wrong if he assumes consciousness of mortality is top of everyone's mind. Some refuse to think about it at all, batting away thoughts of death right to the very end. But not Guy.

Guy at his home in Greenwich. Picture: John Appleyard
Guy at his home in Greenwich. Picture: John Appleyard

"Death is going to be another totally different experience. My personal view is that you fall off the edge, like the edge of that table there and that's it baby. But I'm not afraid of questions about life and death - why should I be?" he asks.

Interesting answer and enviable mindset. And the volume, the scale, the intelligence and sheer beauty of his artwork shows he is very much alive.

"One's nerves are always out there waiting for something to happen," he explains.

Even at 100. Guy has an exhibition of his drawings at the National Art School, Darlinghurst, where he trained in 1947, open from now until May 22. And another open with the Lane Cove Art Society, at Gallery Lane Cove, until May 29.

Guy has had his share of pain and suffering. No one escapes those, he points out. He has had heart disease leading to a quadruple bypass and prostate cancer, both diagnosed in 2000. Dr Joy Warren, his wife of many years and a leading artist and ceramist, died in 2011. It's a time of more endings than beginnings.

"At 100 one doesn't look forward, one looks backward. There is anguish, sorrow and regret. You think: 'I could have done things better or, I shouldn't have done that.' You'd be pretty stupid if you got to 100 and didn't have those thoughts."

Guy's urge to 'make marks' draws him forward though.

Inside his home studio. Picture: John Appleyard
Inside his home studio. Picture: John Appleyard

"Take a sheet of blank paper. It has no energy, no vitality, it's just a flat surface. You start invigorating the surface. It starts to be activated, to have its own life beyond the mark, and so it goes on.

"These marks then form a kaleidoscope of clutter from which one draws 'material' - I hate the word inspiration.

"They add up to a whole that's about living, grasping the interesting bits, sometimes not knowing what it is that you're grasping but learning how to appreciate, even when unknowing, how much they influence you."

Guy's most prolific images are about the land: "The people of the South Pacific first led me to this. They have an association with the land and capacity to decorate themselves which is so incredibly rich, textured, and powerful.

"They dress for their dance festivals in the most astonishingly inventive and creative ways, using leaves, bark, mud, feathers, just about everything that belongs to the land. And if you start decorating yourself with the things of the land, it soon becomes a strong metaphor for being part of it."

Another similar early experience was serving in the army: "The army does that for you too. You become very conscious of the earth under your feet.

"And then as I got older the relationship of our own Indigenous people to the land strengthened the power of this idea for me."

Surrounded by paints and artworks in his studio. Picture: John Appleyard
Surrounded by paints and artworks in his studio. Picture: John Appleyard

It hit home in its absence when he went to London as a young man: "I couldn't paint. The English landscape is so immensely beautiful, calm and peaceful. I tried to paint it but I just couldn't. I wasn't a Londoner and it had all been done so well before. It wasn't my land, I didn't have it in my soul.

"So I ceased trying to paint the English landscape and started to paint my memories of New Guinea and Bougainville."

Guy learnt a valuable lesson from that - to work not just with what was in front of him but also with what was in his own soul.

"You look at the landscape and put down what you see but that experience showed me it's much more fun to let your imagination go. My work since then has largely been about the relationship of humankind to the land - although not solely, because I refuse to be dogmatic.

I've always demanded the right to do the kind of painting I want."

A lifetime's obsession, again seeded in Queensland and Bougainville, is with rainforests, most particularly lianas, or the forest vines, that run through them. In response Guy and Joy, had a retreat in the middle of a rainforest near Jamberoo.

"I find a rainforest almost the equivalent to a painting. One can see space through the leaves. Occasionally, you can see everything on the surface, and sometimes you see it at the back. You see textures, shapes and lines, many lines.

"The lianas weave through the rainforest and they look like three dimensional line drawings, a line wandering through space."

Another image that often comes to Guy is a boat and it has stayed with him forever. "Yes, boats have been appearing in images from the earliest of times.

Warren’s prize-winning painting Flugelman with Wingman. Copyright: Guy Warren
Warren’s prize-winning painting Flugelman with Wingman. Copyright: Guy Warren

And it's the image of the final journey we make, at death. But it also refers to a particular experience of my own.

"When we were teenagers, my brother and I did a mad canoe journey down the Shoalhaven River, starting near Goulburn and ending up at the river's mouth at Nowra. It was hair-raising, wonderful, beautiful."

Then there is the winged figure.

"It came from people leaping off the cliff in hang gliders, above my shack at Jamberoo. I started drawing them because they were there. When you draw flying figures you think of other possible meanings; birds, butterflies, angels.

"Then inevitably, the reference to the Greek myth of Icarus, about escape, the search for freedom, about risk taking. It's also about a young guy of 18 not listening to his father.

"I painted a portrait of my good friend, the sculptor Bert Flugelman, who was a risk taker. I thought 'I'll paint wings behind him' and at the point when I was just about to paint the wings into his portrait, a shudder went down my spine. Flugelman is German for wingman." It became "Flugelman with Wingman" and won Guy the Archibald Prize in 1985.

So what are the secrets of living to 100 and to still live so fully?

"People always ask that but there are no secrets at all. I'm astonished that my life has lasted so long.

"I have a whiskey every night. Occasionally I do vary it. Those are serious decisions one has to make at the time - whether today is the day to change the routine, by having a gin and tonic instead," he jokes.

Enjoying the sunshine. Picture: John Appleyard
Enjoying the sunshine. Picture: John Appleyard

"The real answer is that I've had good luck and good genes. I've been just extraordinarily lucky."

However, he'd like another 50 or even 100 years.

"At 21 I knew very little but at 100 I realise not only that I know very little, but I know now how very, very little I know - and that's another thing altogether. There are too many things I still need to do, still want to learn."

Guy's chances of getting that extra 50 years are slim, and of course he knows it. But as he approaches the moment of "falling off the edge", he feels privileged to be able to make his marks. And we are privileged too, for the canon this has given us.

Originally published as 'I'm astonished my life has lasted so long'