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Q&A with our Artist-in-Residence Hadyn Wilson

"To me, the Library represents a temple dedicated to ideas... It is a place built for quiet contemplation and respect for the process of learning and thinking.  There are not many places left in the world that can offer that." – Hadyn Wilson, artist

Each year the Library invites an artist to take part in an artist-in-residence program. This year we are pleased to welcome Sydney-based artist Hadyn Wilson, whose diverse career has spanned paintings, public sculpture, and what he calls ‘cut-outs’ (paper sculptures).


Library artist in  Hadyn Wilson in his studio, photographed by Joy Lai.

Hadyn is no stranger to the Library, having studied and read in the Mitchell Library as a young student for hours at a time.

“To walk into the old section of the Library and still realise that, for the most part, it hasn’t changed, is somehow reassuring.”  ­– Hadyn Wilson

For the past three months Hadyn has been busy exploring our collection, finding inspiration in every nook and cranny. Here’s what he had to share about his experience so far.

What inspired you to take up an artist residency at the Library?

Being narrative based, my work has always relied on history and library collections.  After finding out about the artist-in-residence program it seemed like the perfect fit for me given the way I normally work.

How would you describe the Library to people who have never visited before?

To me, the Library represents a temple dedicated to ideas. It still has the quiet reverence and atmosphere of something like a church. The main hall in the Mitchell Library is a stunning piece of architecture and its skylight floods the space with a luminous glow.  It is a place built for quiet contemplation and respect for the process of learning and thinking.  There are not many places left in the world that can offer that. 

What has been the most surprising discovery you’ve made in the Library’s collection as part of your residency? 

As my project involves researching various (predominantly Australian) artists from the late 19th and early 20th century, the discovery of original drawings in diaries, sketchbooks, notebooks and letters has been a revelation.  An example being the younger Arthur Streeton’s letters which were often poetic ramblings and ruminations on nature accompanied by playful observations, drawings and comments. To be able to handle these precious documents is a humbling experience.

Can you tell us about some of the works you’ve created at the Library so far? 

Left image: Robert Louis Stevenson, ca. 1892, sketched by Girolamo Nerli. Right image: Robert Louis Stevenson, ca. 2019, painted by Hadyn Wilson

There have been many examples, but the discovery of Italian painter Girolamo Nerli’s drawing of Robert Louis Stevenson (pictured, left) in the Library’s collection provoked me into doing my own version and attaching an intriguing yet somewhat unreliable story around its making (pictured, right). 

When Girolamo Nerli arrived in Australia in 1885, he was in his early 20s and without much cash. He made a living by selling artwork and items picked up on his various travels. After exploring the country extensively, Nerli found himself in Samoa where he bumped into Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

After some misgivings about his character, Stevenson agreed to pose for the artist – 27 times!!! Nerli completed at least two artworks of the great writer, one in oils and another charcoal drawing, now held by the Library.

It seems that Stevenson penned a poem dedicated to Nerli during these sittings, conjuring the artist’s mysterious background and connections. Amazingly, I found an old letter in the Library’s collection in which Stevenson alludes to a short story he wrote called The Remittance Man supposedly based on Nerli’s life. The manuscript, however, has never been found.

My project titled An Historical Novel (An Exploration of the NSW State Library Archive) looks into the background surrounding the making of certain paintings which are then reproduced with ‘contemporary additions’. Where the history is incomplete, I visually compose a story in the tradition of the historical novelist in order to complete the work.

Which part of the Library do you find most inspiring and why?

I find the Friends Room most inspiring for two reasons.  The first is the excellent coffee machine in the corner and the other being surrounded by the extraordinary collection of books dedicated to one novel, Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’.  This was one of the first novels I read as a young man and is a celebration of the creative journey and the life of the imagination. Nothing could be more inspiring to sit in the comfortable chairs, sipping good coffee and reflecting on Cervantes’ world.

You can view Hadyn Wilson's work on his website, or follow his Instagram account for a behind-the-scenes look at his Library residency and project.