Winning Woman

Creating a portrait of a person you greatly admire is a daunting process. To do justice to the sitter without leaving them feeling overexposed requires great skill and intuition. It’s not an easy ask, but this year’s Archibald Prize winner, Fiona Lowry, captures iconic Australian architect and patron of the arts, Penelope Seidler, with such breathtaking reality it’s haunting. Lowry stops a moment in time when Seidler is looking back toward the Killara home she co-designed, built and shared with her architect husband, the late Harry Seidler. I caught up with Lowry in anticipation of the Archibald Prize coming to the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery from October 4 to November 16.

She was at home with her three-year old son when the phone rang. The anticipation of this call is legendary amongst Archibald finalists. If the phone hasn’t rung by 10 am, it’s not going to be the winning call she explained. Both mother and son were very excited when the phone rang. For some time thereafter her son would inform, “My Mum won the prize!” to all within earshot.

Lowry said there were so many things she admired about Seidler it was hard to know where to begin. “She’s a great role model for women and a real inspiration,” she related. Of course this made the task even more difficult. “I found this one (portrait) so confronting because I wasn’t sure how she would feel about revealing that unguarded moment. My work is all about responding to a particular landscape. Taking people to places that really resonate in some way brings out something you wouldn’t otherwise see. Portraits aren’t easy because you’re always walking that fine line of not wanting to be brutal in the approach, but also wanting that telling moment,” she explained.

In discussing the distinctive look she achieves in her paintings, I inquired about the use of airbrush and her subdued colour palette. “I want to make works that are visceral. Airbrush has this ability to drop things in and out of focus causing a vibration in the eye that has a physical effect. It’s about a disoriented kind of viewing experience. Airbrush lends itself to an evocative kind of space. The way I see things is always a bit ambiguous,” she revealed.

With regard to the restricted palette, “I make decisions in the moment. If that image lends itself to a particular colour, then that’s what happens. It’s not a particular strategy. The figurative works are kind of dreamscapes, not based in any kind of real place or reality. I think I can do that a bit better with a limited colour palette. That’s the intuitive part. It’s all very structured up until the point of the actual making of the painting. That’s the really exciting part where the joy of it happens for me,” Lowry explained.

Thinking about winning the Archibald Prize, Lowry shared, “Having that financial support right now is incredible. That’s the sort of thing every artist needs. Sometimes sales are few and far between. To be able to just focus on making work now is a really wonderful thing. It also opens up so much conversation. You become part of a larger conversation just being in the show. It’s an amazing community. It was lovely to win and a great experience.”

Lowry has always been an artist. As a child she was encouraged and supported by her mother who took her to classes and had artists come to their home to teach her. “I never really thought of doing anything else after school. I went straight to art school at Sydney College of the Arts,” she said.

Art School wasn’t quite what she expected. “When I got to art school nobody was doing painting even though we were in the painting department so I did sculptural work. I left for a year to study drawing and painting at East Sydney Technical College then went back to finish art school. When I left art school, I went back to painting,” she said.  Lowry is currently working toward a Masters of Fine Art degree at College of Fine Arts, University of NSW.

Studying and creating work for the upcoming Hong Kong Art Show and another show at Sydney’s Martin Browne Gallery, there is no rest in sight for Lowry, but she’s happy with that. See her winning portrait when the Archibald Prize comes to Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery from October 4 to November 16. Book tickets online: