Walking on Cloudstreet: Laura Jones on her Archibald Prize win

Walking on Cloudstreet: Laura Jones on her Archibald Prize win
Image: 'Tim Winton' (L) by Laura Jones (R). Photo credit: Mark Dickson

Laura Jones is euphoric; not only has she just won the prestigious Archibald Prize, but she did it with a portrait of her idol, Tim Winton.

Jones has wanted to paint acclaimed writer and noted spokesperson for the environment, Tim Winton, for many years. 

“I’d done a series on the Great Barrier Reef a few years ago and met him back then at an environmental advocacy event, and so the seed was probably planted then,” she told City Hub. “But it was after watching [the ABC documentary on Ningaloo Reef, Ningaloo Nyinggulu] that I thought, really now is the time. We’re at crisis point for the environment, the Great Barrier Reef is suffering its fifth major bleaching event in something like eight years, so now is the time — and luckily he said yes.”

Like Winton, Jones is passionate about saving the stunning oceans and landscape of this country from the impact of human indifference. Born and raised in Kurrajong in the leafy, picturesque Blue Mountains, Jones has always felt a special connection with nature, something she expressed through visual art. 

“As a little girl in Kurrajong, I dreamed about being an artist. I’ve been lucky enough to make that dream come true. More than any other event, today shows that I wasn’t completely crazy,” she said in her acceptance speech during the Archibald announcement event at the Art Gallery of NSW. Jones also noted that she is only the twelfth women to have been honoured in the Archibald’s 101 years of prize-giving. 

“I hope this moment inspires more young girls to pursue a career in the Australian art world.” 

Archibald Prize Laura Jones
Laura Jones in front of her winning portrait. Photo credit: Mark Dickson

This Archibald win represents an apex in a career that is peppered with distinctions including being an Archibald finalist in 2023, 2022, 2019, and Wynne Prize finalist in 2021. Jones also has a painting (Sliding doors) in the Sulman Prize shortlist this year, and is featured along with fellow artists, Ed and David Liston, in Daniel Kim’s Blue jeans and flowers, another Archibald finalist.  

Jones was first introduced to Tim Winton the same way many Australians were, through his break-through 1991 novel, Cloudstreet

The popular Australian writer was born, raised, and, after several overseas jaunts, now resides in Western Australia. His literary work, which includes novels, children’s books, short stories, and non-fiction, frequently has themes of ocean and nature thread through the narrative. Winton himself has been named a “living treasure” by the National Trust and received an Order of Australia in 2023 for distinguished service to literature as an author and novelist, to conservation, and to environmental advocacy.

“I wanted to do Tim justice because he’s just an incredible artist and author. He’s so inspiring and he has enchanted generations of Australians, so I really cared about trying to convey his message for the world,” says Jones, describing how she approached the portrait.

“We didn’t have long together, just a couple of hours, so I took a couple of photos of him in Fremantle where he lives, and then did a watercolour, which was quite quick, and, because it was fast, the background was abstracted.”

She didn’t have time to paint the full portrait there and then, so Jones returned to Sydney and then worked from the watercolour she’d hastily created. She also made the initial drawing in pencil as a way of finding affinity with Winton, who writes all his books in pencil. 

“And I like that’s it’s a bit dreamy and blurred, but I like that his face is really direct…” 

Winton’s expression in the portrait is focused and intent. He is looking away, slightly off to the side. 

“I wanted him to almost look like he was in motion, and not place him in any particular time — like, I didn’t want him to look photographic, I think he’s so much bigger than that, he’s a timeless character,” explains Jones.  “I really hoped that the paint would speak a bit to him by letting it wash over the canvas and leave a bit to the imagination.”

Despite the fact that Jones has been an Archibald Prize finalist four times already, and has received a stack of prestigious art awards, the announcement that she had won this year’s top honour came as a genuine surprise.

“I’m honestly so shocked. I had no idea. Every painting in here deserves to win,” says Jones. “Archibald is enormous recognition and you really become part of this great tradition of portrait painting, which is also a reflection of how the arts evolves in Australia, and it’s a beautiful kind of cross-section of painters and obviously incredible talent, so to be honoured in this way is mind-blowing.”

Jones is acutely aware of the enormous exposure this prize will give to her as an artist and to the cause she passionately shares with Winton.  

“The eyeballs on the Archibald are extraordinary… And I think it’s an incredible opportunity to be able to talk about Tim as a person, and his life’s work, and yeah, shine a light on everything he’s doing for the environment.” 

The Sulman, Wynne and Archibald Prize Winners

Djakaŋu Yunupiŋu, ‘Nyalala gurmilili’, Wynne Prize winner (L) and Naomi Kantjuriny, ‘Minyma mamu tjuta’, Sulman Prize Winner (R)

The announcement of the Archibald, Sulman, and Wynne Prizes is preceded by a level of secrecy equivalent to that of the Oscars.  The moment the winners are named, there is a media frenzy as journalists rush to get their pithy headlines posted. For curator, Wayne Tunnicliffe, the revelations bring a mix of relief and joy. 

“It’s a moment of great excitement, actually, to have it out there who’s won… to have that circulating in the world. I think getting to this point, when the exhibition’s installed, having the winners chosen and announced and the public about to arrive tomorrow is extraordinary,” says Tunnicliffe.

The fact that the prizes are judged on the morning of the announcement perhaps makes the secret easier to keep. The board of trustees arrives at 7am and must make a decision by 9am so that the relevant artists can be notified and prepare. The trustees select the Archibald and Wynne prizes by majority vote; this year, the Archibald choice was unanimous. 

For only the second time in its history, the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes were all won by women artists, and more notable still, the Wynne and Sulman were awarded to indigenous women artists. 

“I think both the winning works [Archibald and Wynne] are absolutely fantastic, so powerful…I think gender is irrelevant – they’ve chosen three amazing artists who happen to be women,” says Tunnicliffe. 

“Tom Polo is the judge of the Sulman Prize and he selects the winner there. I think it’s a very meaningful work by a senior artist.”  

The Sulman Prize is awarded for the best subject genre painting or mural. This year’s winner is Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara elder, Naomi Kantjuriny for her synthetic polymer on linen, Minyma mamu tjuta. 

“And then the winner of the Wynne is extraordinary…mesmerising, at scale, one of the largest barks ever made. The artist, again, a senior community member painting at the peak of their powers.”

The Wynne Prize is awarded for best landscape of Australian scenery, or best example of figure sculpture by an Australian artist. The winner this year is winner is Djankanu Yunupinu for Nyalala gurmilili.

Earlier this month, the Packing Room Prize, chosen by staff, was awarded to Matt Adnate for his stunning portrait of Baker Boy, titled Rhythms of Heritage. Still to be announced are the prizes for the Young Archies (July 27) and the People’s Choice award (August 8). 

All finalists are now on display at the Art Gallery of NSW until September 8, 2024. 

www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au

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