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Painting Politics: A Shot at the Archie with John Anderson

May 2, 2024
Article by Anna Van Stralen

During a busy patch of marking, taking a short break before diving back into design essays, I found myself in the ‘contact’ section of ex-Deputy Prime Minister and political commentator John Anderson’s website. I sent an email through with a small request: I asked if I could paint him for Australian tentpole arts event the Archibald Portrait Prize. Diving back into family and work and to-do lists, babies and school books and washing, I never thought I would receive an answer.

I did, and he said yes. I soon found myself staying in a cheerful backpacker with my husband and baby, enjoying Sydney and painting John from life.

So, why John Anderson? I enjoy a wide diet of political opinions, and out of that crowded flurry of opinions, voices and ideas, John has always set himself apart with the courteous and measured way that he expresses himself in dialogue with others – whether or not you sit on the same side of the fence or in a different paddock completely, John’s expressed view that good policy is found in the ability to debate and explore ideas with vigour and respect is worth a listen, and he models what he calls for. What I want more than anything is to see our culture grow into one where people genuinely respect one another and try to work together from all sides.

It’s quite the undertaking, painting from life – changing light, a moving subject and no privacy to make all the mistakes and explorations necessary for a dynamic outcome is a little like trying to perform a dance to an audience when you haven’t learned it yet. I think this challenge usually scares people away from painting in front of others. Paintings start rough, and tentative, ambiguous and complicated, and embracing the struggle is part of the adventure. On that first sitting, it’s about discovering the person, the one you would never see in a recording or a photograph, but the real, living, breathing creature that inhabits its body and space in a perfectlyunique way.

There is no broker between your eyes and reality when painting from life. You may find that when you finish a session, what you built on the painting surface is rough, but the observations that you focus on while painting in-situ stay in the memory to resurface when needed – that reflection looked ever so slightly blue, the air was warm, the hand was hanging very relaxed. Things that a photo removes, the mind holds onto.The task back in the studio is to use the collected material and rely most on that in-person learning time to bring the image to life.

It was one particular podcast that really sealed the deal when I decided to ask John to sit for me. He shared honestly about grief and his own story of loss, using it to explain how you can live when things fall apart. I was in the car delivering a meal to a friend and it moved me to tears. Like most of us, I have lost someone dear and there are not enough people out there talking it through as the reality of life that it is, with compassion and, best of all, with a sense of deep hope. The day after, I sent my request.

I don’t know how far I will get, but this project isn’t about a competition. It’s a cliche but for me, right now? It’s about the joy of the ride.

Anna Van Stralen is a visual artist living and working in Launceston, Tasmania. In between working for Swinburne Tech online as a design educator and looking after her two children she works on her practice, which centres on painting with forays into sculpture, mixed media and drawing. Anna is currently developing work for her show at Launceston’s Madeline Gordon Galley on George St opening in June. Anna has aPhD in creative philosophy and has taught at UTAS, Charles Sturt and Swinburne universities.

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