People and Places
Compelling portrait captures a moment in time
by Nikki Fisher

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Vicki Sullivan.

Australia’s much-loved and prestigious portrait painting prize, The Archibald Prize, is 100 years old this year; it is somewhat fitting that this year’s prize and $100,000 was awarded to Melbourne artist Peter Wegner for his portrait of Australian artist Guy Warren at age 100. Out of 938 entries, 52 finalists were selected: 26 men and 26 women. This gender parity has been a long time coming. In its history, only 10 women have won the Archibald.

One of the 938 entries was by award-winning Mornington Peninsula artist Vicki Sullivan. A committed portrait and figurative artist, Vicki has entered The Archibald Prize 11 times. The Archibald Prize calls for portraits of Australians distinguished in the fields of art, letters, science, or politics. Vicki’s cast of portrait sitters for most of those 11 years have come from the arts, starting with actor Steve Bastoni in 2010. Then actors Sigrid Thornton, Kerry Armstrong, and John Waters graced Vicki’s canvases. Opera singer Liane Keegan, with whom Vicki attended Sorrento Primary School, was her entry in 2015.  Vicki says that getting to meet and paint the portrait of opera singer and proud Yorta Yorta woman Deborah Cheetham, who she had long admired, was a particular highlight.

Safe Hands, Vicki Sullivan’s portrait of Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton.

For Vicki’s entry this year, she looked beyond the arts to science and couldn’t have found a more prominent person in the field at this time in history than Victoria’s chief health officer, Professor Brett Sutton. With Brett’s workload and unpredictable timing of lockdowns in Victoria, it felt like a big ask but Vicki pulled it off. “I emailed Brett and shamelessly name-dropped the fact I’d painted a portrait of his colleague, Associate Professor Daniel O’Brien, who at the time was head of contact tracing at Barwon Health. I hoped that would give Brett confidence I was for real. He replied and said he would be happy to. We managed to get one sitting done in my studio. I did a pencil sketch and a photo session.” To enter the Archibald, you have to have had one sitting from life. “We just got in between lockdowns.”

Vicki is yet to be a finalist in the Archibald but her commitment to her work is unwavering, so it is just a matter of time. Her portrait of Prof Sutton is now entered in the 2021 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize. “If it doesn’t get in, I’ll enter it in the 2022 Darling Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery,” Vicki said. “To have something on the wall at the National Portrait Gallery is the height of heights. I’d love them to have the portrait of Brett as a reference of this time.”

Vicki’s passion for painting realism has seen her travel to Italy several times to learn from the masters of her style. In 2019 she graduated from the Angel Academy of Art in Florence. “When I was starting out at art school in Australia in the early ‘80s, I was disillusioned because realism was looked down on here and that was what I really wanted to do. To me, when I looked at those old master paintings, I just thought they were magic. In Florence we would paint and draw every day from a life model for six hours a day. It was the best training.”

To artists feeling a bit disheartened by the state of the world and the arts at this time, Vicki says: “Make the most of this time. Use it to prepare and train. This will pass. Don’t give up on your dreams.”

Follow Vicki on Instagram @vickisullivan and check out her website

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