Natasha Walsh works from a tiny sunlit room, two metres by three metres, in the corner of her Sydney flat. Small enough, it turns out, to be measured with a ruler.
The 24-year-old from Darlinghurst remodelled the apartment to create her studio, a jumble of “jars and piles of things” where she has been busy assembling a career in the art world.
That career received a welcome shot in the arm on Friday night when she won the Kilgour Prize, Newcastle Art Gallery’s prestigious competition for figurative and portrait painting.
Her winning work, Within the Studio (self-portrait), is on a 10-centimetre square of luminous marble, inside a wooden frame which draws the viewer in to her “contained” creative sphere.
“I was working at the time in a relatively small space,” she told the Newcastle Herald. “I have all these pieces of material and stuff lying around, and I had these pieces of marble, and I was just interested in the smoothness of the surface.
“I needed a break creatively and mentally from what I was doing, and I was just feeling quite contained in that space and I wanted to reflect that.”
I can never see myself outside of the lens or a mirror. We can never actually see ourselves.Natasha Walsh
Much of her work is quite different, ruminations on the nature of time and identity, sometimes painted on unstable surfaces which change or corrode. But on this occasion she decided to “throw the dice and see what happened”.
“There are so many failures that come out of that, and you just curate your own work. You only ever see a small fraction of what we do.”
This particular “small fraction” has added up to $50,000, Walsh’s prize for winning the Kilgour.
The competition, one of the richest art prizes in Australia, attracted almost 400 works this year.
Five Hunter painters, Peter Lankas, Geoffrey Breen, James Drinkwater, Cliff Hosking and Rachel Milne, are among the 31 finalists.
Within the Studio (self-portrait) portrays Walsh in fish-eye close-up with the walls and windows of her studio encircling her.
Gallery director Lauretta Morton said she and her fellow judges, Matthew Tome, head teacher at Newcastle Art School, Hunter TAFE, and Judith Blackall, curator and manager at the National Art School Gallery, “kept coming back” to Walsh’s tiny portrait.
“The skill in being able to replicate such a beautifully painted image on that marble is incredible, the light, and there’s also almost a transparency there,” Morton said.
“She said she wanted to show a self-portrait of herself feeling closed in, and she’s perfectly captured it.
“She’s got such a deft hand. Just the little hints of duck-egg blue in the sky – I think it's just an exquisite little treasure.”
Walsh, who has a Master of Fine Art degree from Darlinghurst’s National Art School and is twice a finalist in the Archibald Prize and a 2016 Kilgour finalist, said the size of her winning work was down to chance. Some of her works are a metre wide.
“But the self-portraits tend to be quite small, because the nature of doing a self-portrait is kind of uncomfortable and you don’t want to do that on a big scale.
“This work I just had the material and those pieces were that size.”
The nature of lenses and how they can warp our self-perception are a central theme of her “playful” portrait, in which she regards her face as “incidental”.
“You really become aware of that when you’re doing self-portraits, that you’re not painting yourself; you’re painting your perception and you’re also painting yourself at a particular moment where it’s not really you; it’s just an aspect,” Walsh said.
“I can never see myself outside of the lens or a mirror. We can never actually see ourselves.
“A photograph as well is not accurate, either, because that’s a single lens, when you think about it, and we see things with two eyes.
“It’s funny how we think of photography as this documentary medium, but it’s really not; it’s just as distorted as painting.”
The exhibition of Kilgour Prize finalists is open to the public until October 21 at Newcastle Art Gallery.