Soft afternoon light fills the studio of Thirroul artist Paul Ryan as he talks for the first time publicly about a love tryst between a Catholic priest and a kitchen employee, which created his life.
His mother, a devout Catholic, had kept the birth of what was to be her only child a secret, too ashamed to tell a soul.
Disgraced, she fled to New Zealand for nine months, telling friends she was going on a long holiday. She was 40 when she gave birth.
After he was born Ryan was adopted and his birth mother returned to her home in Victoria.
When they met 25 years later she was still working in the same job at the same Catholic college as she had when she fell pregnant. The priest, who had moved to another country, declined a request for contact.
The woman, who never married, managed to carve a simple but comfortable existence for herself, living in a small apartment.
She had a close circle of loyal and like-minded friends. Religion and the Catholic Church were her priority and she would talk constantly about how important they were to her.
Conversations in religion did nothing to connect them, but she and Ryan found common ground in their appreciation of the arts.
Though it was shame and circumstance that ripped mother and son apart 48 years ago, Alzheimer’s disease has now taken its place, robbing the woman, who is now in her late 80s, of her memories and rendering Ryan a stranger to her once more.
‘‘In a way she had a good life, but she lived with this incredible guilt, which unfortunately many women of her generation who fell pregnant out of wedlock had to endure,’’ says Ryan.
‘‘You can imagine the additional uproar it would have caused if it had got out that she’d been pregnant to a Catholic priest.
‘‘So she never told anyone, not even her closest friends knew that she’d had a child. She was so bound up with the church that just about everyone she knew were either priests or nuns. That was her whole world. ‘‘She suffered so much for such a long time. It’s very, very sad but maybe in a strange way the Alzheimer’s is like an escape at the end of her life, freeing her from all that anxiety.’’
Ryan and the woman met several times over 20 years and often spoke on the telephone.
‘‘It was good to get to know her over the years, although our lives were incredibly different,’’ he says.
‘‘I never felt upset that she dumped me, but I think we had a complex relationship. After so many years you don’t just suddenly have a strong emotional connection.
‘‘It wasn’t until I became a father myself that I realised what a massive thing [it is] to have to give up a baby. At times I think she found it hard because for the most part she lived the life of a nun, really.’’
Ryan, who has been short-listed for the Archibald prize 10times, won the prestigious $30,000 Geelong contemporary art prize last year with his work Wild Colonial Boys, a continuation of his controversial 2010 exhibition No Country for Dreaming.
The paintings depict European settlers in military uniform at odds with the Australian landscape and climate at the time of colonisation.
‘‘They look self-satisfied. I’ve been playing with this idea of these young men coming here from Europe, dressed in all their finery and totally ill-equipped for the Australian landscape.
‘‘I enjoy the comical aspect of it and I try to capture that in the faces of these men. They look more suited sitting in a hairdresser’s chair than out in the Australian bush.’’
Since winning the award his paintings have been sought after and range in price depending on size from $1000 to $28,000, a welcome relief for any full-time artist with no regular stream of income.
‘‘I’ve had a good run of sales since the award, which is good,’’ says Ryan.
‘‘There are times as an artist when you’re living on your credit card [in] blind faith and other times when there’s a nice big surplus. It’s not always easy but you somehow get used to it. I’m ever hopeful and confident that things will go well and somehow they just do.’’
Prior to winning the award the Wild Colonial Boys exhibited at the Egg & Dart Art Space in Thirroul. Owner and curator Aaron Fell-Fracasso says it was the gallery’s third and most popular exhibition.
‘‘It put our little space on the map,’’ says Fell-Fracasso.
‘‘It was a very successful exhibition. He’s definitely an artist on the cusp of stepping into another league.
‘‘He’s such a humble guy, really, a gentle soul. He doesn’t showboat around or strut through openings soaking it all up.
‘‘He’s a hard-working artist. He clocks in and out of the studio each day. He paints a lot, reads a lot and surfs a lot.
‘‘In this time of new media it’s nice to know that there’s someone out there just throwing paint around and that, I think, is significant and appreciated by many people.’’
Ryan regularly exhibits in Melbourne and Sydney galleries, and has won a string of awards over the past 20 years – although the prestigious Archibald has so far remained elusive.
In the past he’s painted the portraits of artists Nicholas Harding and Ben Quilty, filmmaker Margaret Fink and novelist Thomas Keneally.
‘‘I take awards seriously,’’ he says. ‘‘I’ll enter a dozen or so each year. I plan ahead for each award and the work is done months in advance. It’s been really good for me, actually, because it has disciplined the way I work and really helped to focus my attention.’’
He has also learnt to be tough and critical of his own work – a sometimes brutal process.
‘‘You have to be thick-skinned,’’ he says.
‘‘For sure there’s friendly competition amongst artists. It’s difficult because it’s not like it’s a 100-metre dash. It’s not obvious who the winner is every time. In every art prize you can say that there is at least five or six paintings that could win. It comes down to the taste of the judges.
‘‘That can be hard, but you have to accept it. You also have to be honest with yourself. Sometimes if you’re not being successful it’s because your work is not good enough.’’
His 2010 exhibition at Wollongong City Gallery caused uproar with some members of the indigenous community, who claimed Ryan had been disrespectful with his images of maligned indigenous Australians at the time of colonisation.
‘‘I was quite shocked and upset that there were people who immediately labelled me as racist, when clearly the work was actually very critical in the way the land had been taken from them by the early settlers.
‘‘I think what happened is that people walked in and had an immediate reaction. Here’s whitey again laying the boot in once more and they just got so angry before they had taken the time to see the subtleties of what was being said. But I felt, as a white Australian, I could be very critical in the way the British invaded this land.’’
A meeting with Aboriginal leaders enabled both sides to air their views.
‘‘I explained that I obviously wasn’t out to upset or hurt anyone and that if I had I was very sorry and that certainly wasn’t my intention,’’ says Ryan.
‘‘But basically they said that it was none of my business to paint this work, that it was their story not my story and that I needed to get permission before I painted it.
‘‘I totally disagree with that. I told them it’s not your story or my story, it’s our story and one of the reasons I became an artist is because I’m not really interested in getting people’s permission.
‘‘I like the idea of freedom and this country may not be perfect, but we do have freedom of speech here and that’s incredibly important. So we ended up agreeing to disagree.’’
Ryan and his family migrated from New Zealand to Australia when he was eight, moving to Keiraville.
‘‘I’m one of four children and we’re all adopted. We all come from different biological parents. It was my mother Jan Ryan who actually hunted our biological parents so we could meet them. She did that on our behalf. On the day they adopted me they also adopted my sister. We are four days apart and, even though we look nothing alike, we were often referred to as twins.’’
He says though he is ‘‘cool’’ with being adopted it did have an impact on him psychologically.
‘‘I do suffer a bit from separation anxiety,’’ he says.
‘‘I find it very hard to be separated from my children for great lengths of time. I need to be close to them and know what they’re doing all the time, so that’s my little challenge in life, isn’t it. But it’s not too bad.’’
With the blessing of his parents, Ryan dropped out of high school in year 11.
‘‘There was no art offered after third form at my school and I felt I was really missing it,’’ he says.
‘‘So my parents very generously let me follow my own path and I became a full-time art student at Wollongong TAFE. It was an incredibly formative phase in my life.’’
He met his Javanese wife, Tanti, while on a surfing trip to Indonesia and they now have two children – Jaya, 12 and Samantha, 6.
He still surfs almost every day.
‘‘Riding waves is really just riding the energy of the universe.’’