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For many Sydney-siders the Archibald Prize is the one exhibition they visit every year. For many painters, nationwide, it’s the one prize worth winning. Varia Karipoff spoke to 2018 winner Yvette Coppersmith about the highs and lows of taking out the Archibald Prize.

Yvette Coppersmith: What I learnt about winning the Archibald
by Varia Karipoff

I last spent time with Yvette Coppersmith at her home in Melbourne’s southeast in 2016 for an Art Guide studio conversation. She drew my picture and we ate tuna and nasturtium flower sandwiches in her garden. I’ve visited many artists in their studios, but Coppersmith was the first to call me afterwards – she’s an uncommon mix of shyness and sharp elbows.

Over the phone after her Archibald Prize win, she tells me how her diminutive frame can render her invisible at times, and also the loneliness of the studio practice. These admissions contradict the quietly confident image of her receiving the prize from the president of the board of trustees at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, David Gonski, or the ebullient woman on the other end of the line now. Her composure then, she tells me, was in part because winners are notified the morning of the prize announcement. “I was in [Foxtel’s Archibald] doco last year, I remember the part where Mitch Cairns got the call from [AGNSW director] Michael Brand.” Coppersmith was staying at a hotel in Sydney and turned her phone on at eight-thirty thinking that if she were the winner, she might get a call around nine. As soon as her phone had reception, it started ringing. “It was Michael Brand, I thought: shit just got real.”

She began to shake, she says, “it was a bit of a teenage dream.”

Coppersmith first saw the Archibald finalists’ paintings when she was 15, “I looked closely at all of them even though back then I didn’t know I would be a painter.” The “super-realist” works by 1997 Archibald runner-up, Mathew Lynn, struck her in particular. “I looked so closely at the surface of his painting, thinking, how did he do that?” Just over a year later, Coppersmith got serious about art. “I changed schools for that, so I could build a folio and get into university.” Coppersmith did her first oil painting, a self-portrait, at 17, “that’s why I think I have been painting for 20 years, I am 37 now.” Painting full-time since then, prize wins have bolstered Coppersmith along the way but she is honest about the financial stress she has also encountered as an artist. “I’ve always taken a long-term view of my practice. To build my profile has taken a lot of shows and experimentation, these build that bigger picture.”

The kind of painter Coppersmith has pushed to become over those two decades is one with a broad skill-set and an accomplished visual language.

Those initial experiments with genre admits Coppersmith, “were clumsy, it’s like I was putting on an outfit that belongs to someone else.”

After a 2014 show at Melbourne’s now-defunct Utopian Slumps, Coppersmith started on a path which over the next few years took her subject of still life through a series of stylistic changes from realism to cubism. The stylistic shifts in her figurative painting were transferred most notably in the 2017 portrait of Gillian Triggs, a finalist in the Archibald. Her 2018 winning painting, Self-portrait, after George Lambert, is result of that continued labour and learning.

Yvette Coppersmith, Self-portrait after George Lambert, oil on linen, 2018, 122 x 101.5 cm. Winner of the 2018 Archibald Prize.

Art critic Christopher Allen’s caustic assessment of her painting in The Australian accused it of being gauche and “lurid” in colour, and, he continued in the short takedown, “the anatomy of the figure is inaccurate.” But the way Coppersmith frequently erupts in laughter on the phone tells me that she is aware of the controversial nature of the prize and above it – she’s a seasoned finalist of the prize, making the grade in 2008, 2009, 2016 and 2017.

“I worked on 25 studies before beginning the final linen,” she says. This included 17 sketches in pencil and some in oil. “And” she adds, “five linens” that were done to varying stages. Despite preparing since January, Coppersmith started the painting afresh a week before it was supposed to be in Sydney, praying it would dry in time lest it be disqualified. She first admitted to ABC presenter Fenella Kernebone that the make-or-break week coincided with a cracking case of period pain – the kind of pain women are supposed to just live through and not talk about in mixed company, let alone in front of a national audience. I mention the defiance in her self-portrait’s gaze, which belies the femininity of the velvet drapes, and the tenderness of the green foliage. It’s no wonder she recast her coat and gave it leopard spots, adding just a touch of fierceness.

Winning the Archibald Prize brings an “avalanche” of press requests, event commitments, charity auctions, and gala dinners.

Getting though the 24-hour news cycle in the aftermath, says Coppersmith, was only the beginning. Outside the glamour of being a spokesperson for the equally loved and maligned prize, there is also a “tonne of admin” she says. As the winner, Coppersmith will travel to every stop on the Archibald regional tour for events. “Thankfully, they cut it from seven to four regional galleries.” In the time since the win, Coppersmith has zipped to and from Sydney, many times. “People thought I was on cloud nine, but nothing kills a cloud quicker than coming home to a deadline where I have to make a painting.” Coppersmith has also had to rise to the challenge of public speaking, which has “stretched my own comfort zone,” she says. That she is a proficient public speaker has been a recent discovery – “I never knew I had it in me, in the studio you can be so in your own head.”

The cool six-figure prize money Coppersmith will funnel back into her practice. She’s unrepresented, but for now is happy to have time to consider her next move. She is however, giving herself one luxury, “I’m going to take a year off from sending a painting to the Archibald Prize.”

Archibald Prize Tour

Geelong Gallery
22 September – 18 November 

Tamworth Regional Gallery
30 November – 28 January 

Orange Regional Gallery
8 February – 10 April 2019

Lismore Regional Gallery
18 April – 17 June 2019

Varia Karipoff