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Artist Profile: Yvette Coppersmith

Yvette Coppersmith

Yvette Coppersmith with Gillian Triggs, the subject of her portrait. 2017. Image supplied.

Artist Profile: Yvette Coppersmith

Written by: 
Fiona Gruber

When Yvette Coppersmith was fifteen she visited her first Archibald Prize exhibition.

“I looked at them all,” she comments “and remember standing there wondering how the artists painted them”.

It was two years later, in Year Eleven that she painted herself for the first time. The main image was of the face she faced the world with but two smaller self-portraits at the top of the painting represented what she describes as her other selves full of teenage angst.

Back then, winning the Archibald was a teenage fantasy, but in 2018 after being a finalist four times, she was awarded first prize, with a self-portrait in the style of Australian artist George Lambert (1873-1930).

She’s used herself as a subject dozens of times; she struggles to answer how many self-portraits she’s undertaken in the past twenty years but one thing is clear; this ongoing fascination with painting herself is not born out of narcissism.

“It wasn’t that I liked how I looked, it was more about bodily discomfort,” she explains.

“My self-portraits are an antidote to feeling amorphous,” she continues. Her portraits should be seen as studies in contemporary image-making, as well as explorations of self, she adds. There’s also a practical side to self-portraiture, one that many artists will relate to. “If you use models you have to pay them or work from photos, so it’s an availability issue and with a self-portrait there’s no rejection; if you want the gig you’ve got it.”

Coppersmith, who trained at the Victorian College of the Arts, spends half her practice painting other people.

Sitters include Rupert Myer, who was Chair of the Australia Council for the Arts between 2012 and 2018, and Gillian Triggs, former President of the Australian Human Rights Commission and current Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.

''It’s a big privilege to meet people who’ve made a contribution to society,'' she says and there’s also a sense that you’re rounding out a personality that many viewers only read about in combative contexts in the media. “It’s exciting making connections across different fields and it’s a way for the viewer to connect with someone in a gallery; the artist can bring another perspective.”

The arc of an artist’s life includes pressures from galleries and expectations from the public and collectors. Coppersmith explored photorealism for ten years and her current work includes both figurative and abstract painting. These shifts she says are about a need to explore.

“There can be pressure to have a brand aesthetic but I get restless. The important thing, she says, is to know how to plough on with your work, regardless of setbacks or criticism. “I tell my students, you have to jump off, fall and find a way to get back on”, she explains.

She’s found the COVID-19 lockdown a chance to re-assess her practice and to slow down.

“I usually take a lot on and have blood-shot eyes trying to make deadlines,” she says and after many years, she’s excited about a new work-life balance in her life and collaborative projects on the horizon. It’s also made her reassess why she paints, she says;

“I realised I had to heal my relationship with painting and work out how to bring the joy back”.