Ben Quilty (BVArts ’96)

Ben Quilty

Ben Quilty, 38-year-old bad-boy darling of the art scene and winner of the 2011 Archibald Prize for his close-up portrait of friend and patron Margaret Olley, studied for his BA in Visual Arts in 1994 at the Sydney College of the Arts. “I made no serious friends at uni,” he says. “I was living it up and just wanted to pass. I wasn’t ready for more than that.”

He remembers it as an intense time. “The college was still on the Balmain campus and was made up of old warehouses with a great sense of history and a terrific atmosphere.

Of the stimulation he got from the curriculum he says, “Someone changed my life every week. The film Baraka blew my mind and sparked my interest in film theory. But the course was very multi-disciplinary and conceptual so we learned about jewellery, object design, the body and identity. Up until that point, it had been all about drawing for me.

In 1998, Quilty started on a second degree in visual communication, this time at UWS – “because I wanted to learn more about design and computers. I was thinking I might get a job in desktop publishing.” Halfway through the course he met a friend who worked in television and from there, got a job as an editor at Channel Seven in current affairs. “I thought about film-making as a career,” he says.

In a way, film and university brought him back to painting. “When I was at Sydney Uni, we thought, like previous generations, that painting had died. Then I discovered what an immediate medium it was. At that stage, film technology was still so clunky. I was fast, impatient, aggressive. I still work quickly, in a very organic way.

“The portrait of Margaret Olley took under two hours. If you’re in the zone, the music’s pumping and you’re not hungry or cold, it just happens very naturally.”