Art with heart



A local artist has become a three-time finalist of the Archibald Prize with a portrait of Grace Tame.

Realising a long-held dream in 2016, Collaroy artist Kirsty Neilson’s portrait of Australian actor and comedian Garry McDonald was ‘hung’ as an Archibald Prize finalist.

“It was something I used to write down in my journal every year, when I’d list what I wanted to achieve,” Kirsty tells Peninsula Living.

“You think that’s winning when it happens. You think, ‘I’ve made it now’, and then you go, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m now in a sea of whales, artists that are just so phenomenal and have achieved so much.’

“So, you find that there’s so much room to grow and get better, and it’s actually the beginning.”

And grow she did. A mentor had told Kirsty that she had to “put down photos and start working from life” to be taken more seriously as an artist.

She was battling insomnia and anxiety when she took this advice and began working on self-portraits.

It became a type of therapy for the then 30-year-old, and while improving her mental health, she created another artwork worthy of making the Archibald shortlist.

The 2018 self-portrait, titled ‘Anxiety still at 30’, included a blurb that read in part: ‘More recently, my anxiety took me to the point of almost being sick, so I forced myself to paint what that looked like. Painting a self-portrait from life was a first for me, but it allowed me to experiment with the physical and mental aspects I was facing, and whilst the experience itself was a struggle, creatively there was an ease in painting it’.

“One girl emailed me saying, ‘My partner and I looked at your painting and we read your blurb and I burst into tears because it was exactly how I felt and he could understand my anxiety more because of it,” Kirsty smiles.

By becoming a two-time finalist, Kirsty had reinforced her reputation, and this undoubtedly helped her secure a sitting with 2021 Australian of the Year Grace Tame for this year’s Archibald Prize.

That, and the fact she has a long history helping those less fortunate. Since her early 20s, Kirsty has helped build schools for Ugandan villages, and worked with Cambodian girls who have been victims of sex trafficking.

“I’ve got a passion for wanting to help people, and being an artist, that is my platform to say what I want to say and bring attention to things that need attention,” she says. 

“When I saw who won Australian of the Year and it was someone like Grace who had experienced what she had and has shown so much strength at such a young age, it just resonated with me so much.”

A year earlier, Kirsty had painted Ita Buttrose for the Darling Portrait Prize, so she reached out to the media maven in the hope she could connect her to Grace. 

“I just went straight to the top,” she laughs.

It wasn’t long until Kirsty was put through to Grace’s manager. There was no shortage of aspiring Archibald entrants chasing Grace, and Kirsty had to be interviewed as part of the selection process. Ultimately, all parties agreed it was the perfect fit.

Within days, Kirsty had flown to the Gold Coast with all her equipment to meet Grace, where they spent five hours together.

“We just talked, and she was very honest and open with her experience, what she’s gone through, and how she wants to see change,” Kirsty reveals. 

Grace was gushing in her praise of Kirsty when she was given a sneak peak of the work titled ‘Making noise’. But they still had to wait to see if it would even be hung. 

And while Kirsty didn’t win this year – and that is now her driving ambition – she was indeed announced as a finalist for the third time.

“Grace is such a strong person, so that was naturally going to come across [in the painting] but I also wanted to show her vulnerability, and have that softness and strength at the same time,” she says.

“You can see the past pains, but you can also see the triumphs and the victories.”

Kirsty’s portrait is on display at the Art Gallery of NSW until 26 September. At the time of writing the gallery was temporarily closed due to COVID-19, so check the website for updates.

Joe McDonough, Editor-in-Chief, Peninsula Living Magazine

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