Lawyer’s touching painting of dying mother earns Archibald Prize nomination

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A Sydney lawyer’s portrait of his dying mother has earned him a spot as a finalist in one of the most prestigious art competitions in Australia.

It was the first time Mike Barnard had entered a painting to the Archibald Prize competition.

The portrait, You Beautiful Fighter, is an ode to the grace and strength his mother held while she was dying of cancer.

“The decision to paint mum was intuitive. There were no reservations. I knew what I wanted to say, and in mum’s condition, I knew I had to say it. Mum was a remarkable woman. Immensely capable yet supremely humble, she was an inspiring mother, wife, and teacher,” he told Australasian Lawyer.

“Her journey with a rare form of cancer – more than seven years of surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and experimental treatments – left her physically traumatised. Throughout it, she retained a grace and humility – a quiet resolve and relentless energy to make the most of her time with us, for us – that spoke more eloquently about who she was to me than anything else. Entering the work in the Archibald was an afterthought – the result of cajoling from family. It’s certainly a fitting tribute.”

Barnard has always had a love of art, but was drawn to the legal world in his final years of high school and decided to study law at Australian National University.

After graduating, he took up a position focusing on European competition law with firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in Brussels.

He eventually returned to Australia and moved through a number of positions, including as a family law solicitor with Legal Aid NSW and a regulator with the Australian Communications and Media Authority, before ultimately feeling the “tug of a more focused creative career pulling too strongly to ignore”.

He decided art practice needed to be his main focus about seven years ago, and is currently a student at UNSW’s Art and Design school. To supplement his income, Barnard continues to do part-time legal work and currently practises at Cunningham Legal, a suburban law practice in Surry Hills.

He says the intellectual stimulation legal work brings is something he very much enjoys, but as a full-time career the long office hours don’t aid his creative ventures.

Barnard’s journey with his Archibald Prize portrait piece began last year, and he says the painting process gave him and his mum some special time together.

“We had two or three sittings: she sat, I sketched. They weren’t easy sessions. I knew she was in pain. We spent a few hours together that way, in a silent but strangely communicative exchange. At the end of the final session I took some photographs to capture lighting [and] tone,” he says. “Beyond those sittings, I worked on the portrait in the studio – it wasn’t until I finished the painting, two months before mum passed away, that she saw the final work. I think she was immensely touched.”

The techniques he used to capture the essence of his mum weren’t something Barnard really thought about: Rather, he says the direction and key decisions he took with the painting - which is oil on MDF - were driven entirely by a lifetime of knowing and loving his subject.

He says the decision to capture her profile in a moment of beauty and serenity, far removed from the ravages of cancer, was something he needed to do and was its own form of grieving.

“Working on the portrait was certainly cathartic. Capturing mum’s grace and humility amid the torment of her illness was something I’d thought a lot about. We discussed how I wanted to capture her,” Barnard says.

He finished the work in January this year, and his Mum sadly died on 3 March 2014.

Barnard’s portrait will go on an Australian-wide touring exhibition alongside the other finalists from October 2014 until September 2015.

He’s now looking forward to working on a variety of other art-related projects, and his current work explores Australia’s relations to political violence with a particular focus on the issue of asylum seeker policy.

This will form part of a research paper he’s writing for his Masters research at UNSW.

“The nexus between aesthetics and ethics in our visual language as a window into our socio-cultural fabric is immensely interesting. It’s complex terrain that will no doubt take me on a fascinating creative journey.” 

Photo courtesy of courtesy AGNSW.