A portrait of the artist as a public man
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A portrait of the artist as a public man

It can be a lonely life when you spend much of the year travelling the world and meeting with world leaders.

Roger Beale, best known as an economist, policy adviser and consultant, has had his fair share of solitary evenings in far-off cities, walking the streets and dining alone at the end of the working day.

Artist Roger Beale in front of his work 'The Family'.

Artist Roger Beale in front of his work 'The Family'.Credit:Jeffrey Chan

Fortunately, he has always had an outlet - a sketchbook and a compulsion to draw the people he meets and the places he sees.

As well as being a negotiator and adviser - he was one of the most senior Commonwealth public servants of his generation, including spending nearly 20 years at department head level - Beale is also an artist, and has been exhibiting his work for the past three decades.

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His latest exhibition, showing at M16 Artspace in Griffith, is Art and Life, a collection of his major themes - life studies, art history, landscapes, and the sublime.

Although his works draw on the realist tradition, in a similar vein to Edward Hopper and Rick Amor, a contemporary - the settings, and the people and things within them, are often determined by his preoccupations at the time of creating.

A female nude, for example, may be a life study created in his studio at home in Canberra, but Beale has placed her in the Musee Picasso in Paris, a place he had visited in the previous months.

Another scene shows gallery-goers drifting around a sculpture that, on closer inspection, looks to be the stone work by Jacob Epstein, Woman Possessed, in the National Gallery in Canberra.

But the gallery in the painting is not the Canberra institution - it's somewhere in Europe.

''I just put the sculpture in. You can do that,'' he said.

Speaking to The Canberra Times recently, he said he had been drawing for as long as he could remember.

''I had a father who was a good painter, a very good watercolourist, and I used to go out with him, so I started at quite a young age,'' he said.

Drawing was a useful outlet when he contracted polio in 1948, leaving him with a lifelong disability.

''It's probably a way of escaping, particularly in the 1950s when it was much harder to get around than it is now. It was a way of thinking yourself into other places,'' he said.

In later life, he has carried a sketchbook with him constantly, in conference rooms, art galleries, international summits and cafes, and some of these travelogues are also on display.

''Most years I'd be overseas several times, and I travel within Australia for business almost continuously, so I have many lonely nights sitting in cafes where the best thing to do is draw,'' he says.

But while the sketchbooks contain drawings of recognisable figures - president Jacques Chirac of France, premier Wen Jiabao of China, and various other senior types - his paintings are far more ambiguous.

A favourite shows a wall adorned with graffiti, glimpsed at the end of a dark alleyway. It was, he says, on a trip to Venice, when he and wife took a guided tour through the back streets, away from the tourist areas.

While it was arduous - his wife spent a lot of time carrying his wheelchair - he still took his camera.

''Nowhere else in Venice do you see graffiti, except in these back streets, and here was this wonderful bit of graffiti, looking down with this lane framing it,'' he said.

He later painted the scene, and added two figures.

''The figures are intentionally ambiguous,'' he said. ''Man or woman? And is the man with the hood on a graffiti artist, or is he mugger? I've found it's a sort of Rorschach test. People under 25 look at it and just say he's the graffiti artist, looking to see whether she looked at his tag. People over 35 … say he's waiting until she moves out of the light and into the dark, and then he's going to grab her bag.''

Many of the works invite viewers to draw their own conclusions, while others, such as Woman with Kites, simply capture the sublime. In it, a woman - his wife, in fact - stands at a park bench, wearing a red top and watching bright red kites in the sky above.

''It's not in a consciously artistic setting but it's a touch of the sublime, and that's always been another theme of my work, the sublime in the art history sense, of nature interacting with us, even in the most ordinary settings,'' he says.

Art and Life is showing at M16 Artspace until May 5.