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Former medical student swaps scalpel for brush

Sydney Morning Herald May 2015

Rose Powell

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Julian Meagher's latest exhibition is oddly contemplative for a painted study of masculinity and Australia's drinking culture, especially by someone whose main training was in medicine.
But rather than spending his life bent over mysterious rashes or shattered shins, Meagher, 35, has spent the last few months bent over linen canvases, daubing them with ornate, spiky native flowers, with empty booze bottles laying at the base of each delicate vase.
The resulting works make up his latest exhibition, Drinking with the Other Sun at the Olsen Irwin Gallery in Woollahra. The exhibition runs for several weeks, but Meagher has no intention of hanging about and hearing viewers' diagnoses  for  he is still learning to be comfortable with people poring over his works.
"It's been nine years but it still feels weird to say I'm an artist. You say that a dinner party and you get weird looks, ," Meagher says. "People think being an artist is a romantic, alcohol  and passion-filled job. But it's not, and the idea of people seeing my work still scares me."
Among the still lifes are pairs of portraits of young men and their ancestors. These include Meagher's cousin and uncle, the latter of whom spent years in Seville in the 1960s as a professional matador, fighting bulls and drinking with Ernest Hemingway.
Inherited history, drinking and masculinity have been key themes in Meagher's artworks since he finished his medical training and threw it in to study classical portrait painting in Italy for a year of intensive training in the "Italian technique".
During his year in Florence, Meagher learned how to manipulate the slick oil paints into layers and layers of thin paints in artworks that took weeks to complete. 
After returning to Sydney, Meagher opted for a scarcer style and began to train himself to use the thick paints to create a more lucid aesthetic similar to watercolour works.
"I wanted something lighter that would shimmer and have a freshness to it. I abandoned the Italian style of painting but kept the detail of using the sheen of the linen canvas," Meagher says.  "I learn things about this technique that I had no idea I didn't know when I started trying to make it as an artist."
The first few years for any artists is tough, and Meagher said there were moments when he teetered on the decision to return to medicine and make art his hobby.
But an "unrealistic but overwhelming hopeful" commitment encouraged him through more than  100 months of painting and pitching himself to agents and gallery owners, and it  has paid off.
His first full-time studio was in Surry Hills, but like most contemporary artists, he has shifted his work space further into the suburbs as Sydney's rents skyrocketed.
Meagher, 35, now paints in a third-floor studio on an industrial street in Marrickville, which he shares with five other artists including Laura Jones and Guy Maestri.
He credits both with inspiring him to start weaving stronger colours and darker themes into his work. Jones' room is cluttered with exuberantly thick and colourful floral still life artworks, while Maestri's is adorned with the developing portraits of dead birds and koalas, who reside in a specially built freezer.
The high ceilings allow the air, which carries the tang of oil paints and sunbaked sawdust, to circulate through each studio.
In a throwback to the precision and order of medical practice, Meagher arrives early each day and focuses on one artwork as a time.
"There is always one work that brings something out that I know I need to explore next," he says.
In this exhibition, it is the largest landscape painting that feature three distinct clusters of bottles and flowers that has Meagher sketching ideas for his next show.
"I like how confusing it is, and how it is playing with the reflections. There is a really earthy tonality to it. It's very Australian but it's also more dream-like and symbolic and that's really exciting for me moving forward."
Drinking with the Other Sun will be at the Olsen Irwin Gallery in Woollahra until 10 May.

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