Portrait of the artist

By Caroline Baum

Archibald  Prize winner Ben Quilty and Margaret Olley

Photo by Alan Pryke

It’s only logical, when you are the current Big Cheese of the art world, to sit next to the Big Potato. Ben Quilty, 38-year-old bad-boy darling of the art scene and recent winner of the Archibald Prize, has a vast studio in Robertson next to the replica spud. As well as being close to his family home it costs a fraction of the smaller space he used to rent in Alexandria; and removes him from the distractions of urban life. But its hangar-like dimensions are difficult to heat, so we huddle by the wood-burning fire over cups of freshly made Colombian coffee provided by Carlos, a neighbouring artist who brings it back from his native country and roasts it himself. These days, you can’t be an artist with any cred in Australia if you are not also a connoisseur of the bean.

Still enjoying a post-Archibald winning glow for the close-up portrait of his friend and patron Margaret Olley, Quilty has just packed up his latest show to send to the Hong Kong Art Fair – a selection of portraits of his childhood friend Evo – together with more intimate, first-time images of his wife, screenwriter Kylie Needham. “She was an obvious but difficult subject because she never sits still. We were not used to facing each other in silence either.”

His friendship with Evo in the badlands of Kenthurst where he grew up predates his days at Sydney College of the Arts, where Quilty studied for his BA in Visual Arts in 1994.

“I made no serious friends at uni,” he says, acknowledging that his peers – people such as Shaun Gladwell and the artist known as Nell – intimidated him with their ambition. “I was living it up and just wanted to pass. I wasn’t ready for more than that. The school was run a bit like NIDA, it stripped you back and rebuilt you and when you are young and unfocussed, that can be very frightening.”

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. They were carved into sandstone down into a labyrinth of studios where very toxic stuff leached out of the soil. We couldn’t work on the ground because of all the fumes from heavy metals. I thought it might help filter the toxic fumes I was already ingesting.”

Of the (more conventional) 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. I got into ArtExpress from school but I had no idea what being an artist could mean or what the other opportunities might be. It never occurred to me, for example, that one could become a curator, which I think is a fantastic job.”

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. “I still think it could be an option when the bug of painting wears off, but the joy of what I do now is that I have total control.”

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. We were writing its obituary every day. 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.”

He points to the picture of a man with a mastiff’s head and an inscrutable expression, thanks to dark glasses. “That portrait of Evo took me about 40 minutes. I do about two portraits a week. You’re not supposed to say that. The one 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.”

Ben Quilty is represented by GrantPirrie Gallery in Sydney.