Becoming an Archibald Finalist and Navigating the Path Ahead

Becoming an Archibald Finalist and Navigating the Path Ahead

When the email first arrived, I almost dismissed it as another spam message. The words "CONFIDENTIAL – You have been selected..." displayed in the preview, triggering my scepticism. It had slipped my mind that I had entered the Archibald Portrait Prize. Living in Perth, I’ve felt detached from the fervour and buzz that typically surround the prize season in the Eastern states, where the air is permeated by excitement, press and gossip. In that moment, The Archibald Prize was a mere blip on my radar, a point that had been checked off my “to-do list,” wary of getting too attached to being selected. So, upon opening the email and discovering that I had indeed become a finalist, I read those words repeatedly, battling the urge to immediately share the news with my loved ones.

Participating in the Archibald Portrait Prize is a ritual for artists; one that Australians and Kiwis have conducted for over a century. For artists like me, it’s a rite of passage, an opportunity to expose one’s work with the board of trustees, knowing that the likelihood of rejection far outweighs the possibility of selection. Each year, familiar faces grace the gallery walls – those artists and subjects who have been selected multiple times, etching their names into the consciousness of the prize board, the press, and the public. This spectacle, a celebration of intrigue and controversy within the Australian art world, had always felt like an improbable privilege to be a part of, existing in a world far different to the humble studio I’ve created for myself in Perth.

2023 marked my second attempt at entering the competition. In the Driveway, 40° is a tiny self-portrait, rendered in oil on paper, crafted over the course of a few days. It captures a moment of mundanity, depicting myself in a hot car, parked in my driveway at the end of a scorching summer day spent agonising in the studio. It encapsulates a feeling familiar to many, the discomfort of intense heat and my sense of foreignness in a land that doesn't belong to me. Growing up in the UK, I’ve always felt far more at home in cooler climates. 10x15cm big, the painting is dwarfed by the large-scale paintings in my studio and is a protest to the overwhelmingly huge, resolved and complex stories I’ve been telling in these pictures. In an exhausted sigh I say, “Here I am, this is me,” in a moment when feeling tired during the heat of summer was all I had left to give.

Lately I’ve been enjoying painting ordinary, honest pictures of what I see. I paint simple scenes, charged with intense feeling, or sublime, isolated landscapes, condensed down to the cropped, miniature scale of a surface not much bigger than a playing card. The beauty and anguish of the mundane. Though I emphasise that prizes should never be a guide of how worthy your art is, I can’t deny that my selection confirmed that stories like this were worth being told. For the first time, I felt permission that art doesn’t need to be an enormous masterpiece, crafted over months of angst with a paintbrush to be worthy of a title such as “Archibald Finalist.”

The Archibald festivities were an unforgettable whirlwind. On the first day, the artists were given a private viewing of the exhibition. It was an opportunity to see our work displayed alongside outstanding talent, many of whom I’ve admired for years. Among the invaluable aspects of this experience was the chance to connect with these artists. As painters, our craft often isolates us, as we spend countless solitary hours immersed in our studios. Events like these serve as a gathering point, facilitating meaningful connections and fostering a sense of belonging within a larger creative community. It reminded me just how important it is to connect with other artists and build a community; while Perth’s art scene is smaller than the Eastern States’, I’m proud of how many incredible painters we have here and while we all work independently, I consider them my colleagues. The next day, The Art Gallery of NSW transformed into a three-level party, adorned with music, culinary delights, and a vibrant throng of guests. Coming from Perth, it felt like stepping into the realm of Gatsby and as anticipated, I was met with the same recurring questions, “Have you got gallery representation?” "Are you going to move to Sydney or Melbourne?" “What’s next?” Hearing questions like these are so exciting, but also overwhelming. At that moment, more than ever, I just wanted to take in the present experience, but as with any success, people inevitably want to know: What lies beyond this moment? And, as a chronic "future-thinker," these kinds of questions often hold me hostage. In the back of my mind, I knew the answers were “Not yet,” “Why?” and “I don’t know.”

But what does happen after something that feels as huge as the Archibald? Firstly, we have to acknowledge that while incredibly exciting, prizes are just prizes - getting in is a privilege, and a lottery, and it’s not a measure of your worth and success. Secondly, what happens next is I just keep painting. Importantly though, I’ll be painting with the knowledge that a masterpiece can be a small, quickly painted image of everyday life. Participating in the Archibald Prize has taught me a lot. I have learned the immense value of cultivating a steadfast sense of self as an artist, particularly in a realm saturated with galleries, prizes, and ever-shifting trends that can easily sow seeds of doubt regarding one's visual language and artistic identity. Amidst all this, I’m learning that my power lies in allowing my art to speak authentically. The most compelling narrative we can weave as artists emerges from ourselves. Painting like this - and not thinking too deeply about it - is what opened the door to the Archibald Prize. Now, I’ll let it be the thing that guides me forward—the mundane interwoven with the sublime.

So, for now, I’m going to keep painting in my humble, hot, thought currently freezing, little studio in Perth, making lots of art. Since my involvement in the Archibald Prize, I’m delighted to have received grant funding from the Blackbird Foundation as part of their Protostars Program. With the support of the Blackbird team and the community we’re building, I’ll be making a new body of work informed by isolated, arctic landscapes to consider our psychological and phenomenological relationship to the places we occupy. Word and Image will become my new written platform to share weekly insights into my practice, inspirations, and progress. I can’t wait to share this journey with you. I am extremely grateful for the continued support and belief in my work and to be surrounding by such inspiring and talented fellow artists in Australia.

Melissa

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3 comments

Thank you Sharon and Brian for your lovely messages! I’ve not figured out if there’s an option to personally reply yet, so this will have to do!

Sharon – I’m glad that line resonated with you! It’s definitely been something I’ve been mulling over lately as I evolve my practice to be an authentic record of my life – all parts of it. From what we produce as artists, only a few works will be prize or exhibition worthy, and perhaps they’re “masterpieces,” but they rest on the efforts and stories developed through all our work. Thank you for reading!

Brian (Grandad!) – SO lovely to hear your thoughts and have your cheering me on as always. I love what you said about the importance of being true to yours thoughts and ideas, you’re right that artists have a special freedom to indulge in the creative process in a way that other professions can’t <3 xx

Melissa Clements
“permission that art doesn’t need to be an enormous masterpiece” your words are so encouraging to carry on being me and being authentic! Thanks for sharing :)
Sharon

Very humbling thoughts, and refreshing self opinions. Agree, I also think the Art should come from within and not over thought, the creative process should spontaneous unlike my background of Engineering which needs thought so as to not create a potential disaster with potential to harm. Happy to see you (Melissa) feeling that it is a never ending journey of experience from which you are happy to learn, including the most recent experience of the Archibald Prize. As for the ever shifting Trends, that is and has been a constant over the years as the trends have a habit of coming around and around, so anyone trying to follow trends in my opinion is that you are not completely true to your own thoughts. Well done and keep true.

Brian Winter

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