I thought I was the early bird, just now sneaking in at 6.30 the evening before the big day to wish artist Guy Warren happy birthday. He turns 100 tomorrow. But family and friends are already at his house, celebrating with very classy French champagne.
They are not leaving before the clock strikes 12 midnight tonight, when he really does reach that grand number. So the party has already started.
What do you say to someone who is less than six hours away from turning 100? Probably the best to say is ‘Have a beautiful day tomorrow’. It’s a bit awkward to say, ‘May you have many more happy years to come’, as you would for most people.
Guy is wonderfully aware of this. In a lovely interview I did with him for The Mosman Daily recently, it was pointless to fantasise that he would have a long future. He doesn’t. This forces him to live absolutely in the present.
As he pointed out in that interview, the obvious temptation is to look back. But that’s fraught.
“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.”
But he resists the dark places those thoughts could take him to – choosing instead to live in the present, focusing entirely on the compulsion to “make a mark”. And make a mark he does, many times a day, in a way that adds to a repertoire of work that is astonishing by any standards.
He has two exhibitions opening soon and recently I tried to photograph his list of exhibitions since he first started painting as a young man. The sheets of paper were so endless that I had to take several photos.
Guy’s son Paul joked when I rang, saying Guy was too busy painting a masterpiece to come to the phone. It’s not such a joke after all. I first met Guy two years ago when I bought his painting ‘Tibooburra’ at an art show. I bought it as a tribute to my own elderly father, now 97 – a mere stripling compared to Guy.
Dad used to visit his cousins on their property just outside Pindera Downs, near Tibooburra, a town so far out on the corner of the NSW map that it forgets to rain there. It’s forever dry and dusty. When we were kids, Dad would get heart rending letters from his cousin Frank, explaining how yet another year of drought was just about to break them.
I was astonished when I saw Guy’s painting in the gallery where he was exhibiting it a few years ago. It captured all of that – Frank and Dad’s stories in a set of simple, but so evocative marks.
When I asked Guy about his trip to Tibooburra, he wasn’t sentimental. It was just a place he went to. He wasn’t injecting the painting with a false narrative. None of that nonsense. So he’s left it free to me to project my father’s story and that of Frank on to it.
Guy has no fear of death – but to achieve that, he’s had to reconcile with the fear of life. At 100 Guy knows that – it must be hard to get to 100 without having worked all of that out. But how beautiful it is, to walk into his studio, the studio of someone who completely gets this, and so lives so utterly in the present.
That studio is jam packed with the work he did before, the work he’s doing now and the work he dreams of doing in the future. You want to sit there, just yarning with him about each one. But that would take forever.
I salute you Guy Warren, master of art and master of life.
I can’t show you my story about Guy in the Mosman Daily yet, but as soon as it’s published, I will.