Somewhere along the Turon River near Bathurst are what may be left of some oil paintings by Guy Maestri, including one the Archibald Prize winner calls 'probably the best painting I had ever done outdoors'.
He had made them in January on one of the many road trips he and his close artists friends Luke Sciberras and Ben Quilty have made into the bush to create, explore and find inspiration. Having set up camp near the river and worked away, Maestri left his work scattered on its banks as night fell and the three retired to their swags. In the morning, a few were gone - washed away by a river that rose unexpectedly.
'I thought it was pretty funny', Quilty says. 'He didn't think it was so funny. Luke said it's a donation to the bush... Goldpanning people should be looking for Guido's $5000 paintings.'
The three, who are among Australia's most notable thirty-something artists and have two Archibald prizes between them, have banded together for year for road trips that carry on the tradition of the likes of Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend and Margaret Olley heading off to the desert in Drysdale's car more than 50 years ago.
In an exhibition at the Tim Olsen Gallery in Woollahra, Maestri and Sciberras are showing a range of sketches that resulted from the road trips, all painted en plein air, while Quilty plans to show some at the Melbourne Art Fair next month.
Sciberras says of their trips: 'They're some of the happiest times of my life, when I'm not only working but I'm with my favourite friends and there are no distractions, no telephones, no texts, no emails.' Maestri says the three inspire and 'bounce off' each other. 'We all foster each others enthusiasm for work. When I go out by myself, which isn't that often, there's something missing. It's just become something we need to do together.'
The three typically head out for a couple of weeks at a time exploring in the huge area between Sciberras's home at Hill End, near Orange, and Quilty's in the Southern Highlands, or head further afield to the state's central or far west. They take swags, groceries and the bare essentials for working - mainly lots of paper and paints. They cook on campfire and usually sleep under the stars. By day they immerse themselves in making art.
'There's a lot of bluff and bluster in terms of the conversation about what you're going to do that day and which direction you're going to charge in,' Sciberras says. 'But then... the conversation very gently becomes more and more quiet, to the point that we don't talk at all while we're painting.' Other times, 'we like rolling rocks off cliffs', says Maestri, who lives in Sydney. 'That's fun.'
There is much ribbing between them. 'I do get ganged-up-on a bit,' Maestri says. 'We like to critique each other - sometimes it's constructive and other times we like to rip the shit out of each other. It's all good.'
They camp in areas where no one's around and they're unlikely to be bothered. 'People are always interested in artists' work in the busy,' Quilty says, 'but it's quite disturbing to have that happen. So we usually find somewhere that's pretty private and hidden.' The copious work that emerges from these trips is mainly roughly hewn sketches and studies, which are typically brought back to their respective studios and considered not for exhibiting but as the basis for making more thorough pieces later.
Sciberras and Maestri's joint exhibition of work made during their road trips is, they say, rare in that it displays their first responses to fresh environments. It is not usually seen by the public. 'This exhibition shows mine and Guy's very beginnings, the germinations of where our paintings come from,' Sciberras says. The pair have gone further afield together, such as to Aboriginal lands in the Northern Territory's Tanami Desert in February (with Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery Executive Director, Adrian Newstead) - an experience they call transformative.
Since losing his paintings to the Turon River, however, Maestri has built a special box with drawers for road trips to keep his works safe from the elements. 'I learnt my lesson that night,' he says.