Don’t be fooled by the cheerfully chaotic atmosphere of Studio A. In the heart of Crows Nest on Sydney’s Lower North Shore, it’s a place where serious art is done for serious money.
And with four 2022 Archibald Prize finalists, Sydney’s only collective studio for artists living with intellectual disabilities demands to be judged on its own merits.
In just six years, Studio A has established a workplace where its artists’ unique visions of their worlds are shared, nurtured, and finely honed to an uncompromising level of professionalism.
Paintings, installations and sculptures are exhibited, critiqued and sold, and are part of major collections across the country in universities, corporate offices and at Artbank. Many artists make respectable incomes from their work, and several have formed creative partnerships with design houses.
One of them is Thom Roberts, who has the rare distinction of being hanged in the Archibald two years in a row.
His portrait of Studio A president Shane Simpson became the public face of the nation’s most enduring annual art competition last year: the bespectacled, multi-eyed face smiling sweetly from eight-meter street banners. from above.
Roberts’ signature style — his subjects always sport four eyes — is just “Thom-style,” he says, as is his penchant for replacing the human nose with a foot or a hand.
“No, don’t be silly,” he tells studio co-founder and creative director Gabrielle Mordy as we discuss Roberts’ distinctive portraiture style. “But it’s fun.”
Roberts’ successful entry into 2022 is a portrait of ceramic artist Shelley Simpson, whom Roberts calls Rachey, and who has become something of a collaborator with him.
The work is painted on a porcelain disc created in Simpson’s ceramic studio, which produces premium ceramics under the Mud Australia brand. “I like to paint people’s noses like a foot or a finger to make people laugh. It makes me laugh,” he said in the accompanying artist statement.
Meagan Pelham, another Studio A Archibald finalist, has a long-standing creative partnership with Sydney fashion house Romance is Born. Her beloved owls have become one of the designers’ signature motifs, and her poetic reflections on love are embroidered in sequins and beads on Romance was Born dresses and t-shirts.
Archibald of Pelham’s Entry, a vibrant gouache and acrylic painting titled Romance is LOVE, is a portrait of Romance was Born co-founder Anna Plunkett.
Sydney artist Emily Crockford is also up for the $100,000 prize for the second time, after a self-portrait became the studio’s first finalist of 2020. Since then, she has been named Local Woman of the year of Hornsby and was a New South Wales. Nominated Woman of the Year in 2021.
His second work to hang in the Archibald exhibition pays homage to Studio A co-founders Mordy and Emma Johnston, both artists themselves.
The studio’s fourth Archibald finalist, Catherine McGuiness, was also inspired by another artist she worked with, Rosie Deacon.
Victoria Atkinson, who captured national attention with her Archibald 2021 finalist portrait of Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman, reappears as a finalist for this year’s Sulman Prize for Object, Subject or Mural Painting – which is also announced on Friday. Titled Angel Mum, Noel Humphrey, Atkinson’s painting on plywood is a touching memorial to his mother, who died last year.
“I love putting lights on the painting because I think my mother’s spirit shines on me like the sun shines on me every day,” Atkinson says in her artist statement. “I imagine my mother floating on clouds in the sky.”
Studio A is a non-profit arts organization and social enterprise. Established in 2016, it aims to ensure that neurodiverse artists have a voice in contemporary Australian culture and have access to sustainable creative careers.
With the public attention that Archibald inevitably brings, Mordy says artists are finally getting the recognition they deserve – being exhibited alongside works of art created by non-disabled people and subjected to the same curatorial discernment.
“To this day, when I say I work with adults with developmental disabilities, people think I work as an art therapist,” she says.
“There’s this assumption that what we’re doing is just for recreation or some kind of therapy.
“Something like the Archibald is kind of a landmark moment…it brings extra credibility, expanded professional recognition that shows an artist with an intellectual disability can be a serious, talented and professional performer.”
The 2022 Archibald Prize winner will be announced at the Art Gallery of NSW on Friday.