Archibald prize 2022: the small Sydney studio breaking big ground

Do not be fooled by the cheerfully chaotic atmosphere of Studio A. In the heart of Crows Nest on Sydney’s lower north shore, this is a place where serious art is being made for serious money.

And with four finalists showing in the 2022 Archibald prize, Sydney’s only group studio for artists living with intellectual disability 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 a level of uncompromising professionalism.

Artist Thom Roberts, a two-time finalist in the Archibald prize
Artist Thom Roberts, a two-time finalist in the Archibald prize. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Paintings, installations and sculptures are exhibited, critiqued and sold, and sit in major collections around the country in universities, corporate offices and at Artbank. Many of the artists earn respectable incomes from their work, and several have forged creative partnerships with design houses.

One of them is Thom Roberts, who has the rare distinction of being hung in the Archibald two years running.

His portrait of Studio A chairman, Shane Simpson, became the public face of the country’s most enduring annual art competition last year: the bespectacled, multi-eyed visage smiling down benignly from eight metre-high street banners.

Thom Roberts’ 2022 Archibald prize finalist, ‘Rachey in the mirror’ of Mud Australia’s Shelley Simpson
‘It makes me laugh’: Thom Roberts’ 2022 Archibald prize finalist is a portrait of Mud Australia’s Shelley Simpson. Photograph: Jenni Carter/AGNSW

Roberts’ signature style – his subjects always sport four eyes – is just “Thom’s way” he says, as is his penchant for replacing the human nose with a foot or hand.

“No, not being silly,” he tells the studio’s co-founder and artistic director, Gabrielle Mordy, as we discuss Roberts’ distinctive portraiture style. “But it’s fun.”

Roberts successful 2022 entry is a portrait of ceramic designer Shelley Simpson, who 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 high-end ceramics under the brand Mud Australia. “I like to paint people’s nose as a foot or a finger to make people laugh. It makes me laugh,” he said in the accompanying artist statement.

‘Romance is LOVE’ by Meagan Pelham.
‘Romance is LOVE’ by Meagan Pelham. Photograph: Studio A

Meagan Pelham, another Studio A Archibald finalist, has a long-running creative partnership with Sydney fashion house Romance was Born. Her loved-up owls have become one of the designers’ signature motifs, and her poetic musings on love are embroidered in sequins and beads on Romance was Born dresses and T-shirts.

Pelham’s Archibald 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 in the running for the $100,000 prize for a second time, after a self-portrait became the studio’s first finalist in 2020. Since then, she has been named Hornsby’s Local Woman of the Year and was a New South Wales Woman of the Year nominee in 2021.

Artist Emily Crockford
Artist Emily Crockford at Studio A. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Her second work to be hung in the Archibald exhibition pays homage to Studio A’s co-founders, Mordy and Emma Johnston, both practising artists themselves.

The studio’s fourth Archibald finalist, Catherine McGuiness, also took inspiration from a fellow artist she has worked with, Rosie Deacon.

Victoria Atkinson, who attracted national attention with her 2021 Archibald finalist portrait of federal Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman, reappears as a finalist in 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 her mother, who died last year.

“I like to put lights on the painting because I think my mum’s spirit shines on me like the sun is on me every day,” Atkinson says in her artist’s statement. “I imagine my mum floating on the clouds in the sky.”

A composite of two paintings
L-R Catherine McGuiness ‘Rosary with the seagull’ and Emily Crockfords ‘The pattern in the mountains of Studio A, best friends Emma and Gabrielle’. Composite: Studio A

Studio A is a not-for-profit arts organisation and social enterprise. Established in 2016, it aims to ensure neurodiverse artists have a voice in contemporary Australian culture, and have access to sustainable creative careers.

With the public attention the Archibald inevitably brings, Mordy says the artists are finally getting the recognition they deserve – being exhibited alongside artworks created by people without disability, and subjected to the same curatorial discernment.

“To this day, when I say I work with adults with intellectual disability, people think I work as an art therapist,” she says.

Catherine McGuiness
Catherine McGuiness is a finalist in the 2022 Archibald prize for her work ‘Rosary with the seagull’. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“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 milestone moment … it brings added credibility, a broadened professional recognition that shows an artist with intellectual disability can be a serious, talented and professional interpreter.”

The winner of the 2022 Archibald prize will be announced at the Art Gallery of NSW on Friday.

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