*Tony Costa with his initial sketch of Lindy Lee (Photo: Vidya Kathirgamalingam)
Finalists for the 2020 Archibald Prize have been announced with the judges’ pick named on September 25. Vidya Kathirgamalingam spoke to last year’s winning artist, Tony Costa, to find out ‘what happens next?’
When you enter the Sydney home of 65-year-old Tony Costa, it’s not hard to tell that it belongs to an artist.
The walls are plastered with paintings; metal sculptures are scattered sporadically across the garden and the smell of paint lingers.
It comes as no surprise that this eccentric artist won the Archibald Prize in 2019. But a year on, what is he doing?
THE BACKYARD STUDIO
“It feels like you’re in the countryside, doesn’t it?” Tony says to me as I look around his place. He gestures to a white rectangular building at the back of the garden. “That’s my wife Jeannette’s studio.”
He then ushers me into a small building to the left, which he proudly tells me he built himself. It appears to be an amalgamation of green wood and the remnants of an abandoned horse stable.
“And this is my studio. So that Jeannette doesn’t have to put up with me playing Italian rap music,” he jokes, a wry smile curling across his face.
Jeannette and Tony have been together since he was in his thirties and renting out a studio on Glebe Point Road.
The simple act of brushing some dust through the floorboards onto the head of a startled Jeannette in the studio below, was the catalyst for their lifelong relationship.
Like most things in Tony’s life, it was unexpected. “If you expect nothing, you already have everything,” he says, quoting an Indian philosopher.
This small studio within this suburban Sydney backyard, is a reminder of why this mantra rings true. It was here that he would bring to life his portrait of Lindy Lee.
“A good painter doesn’t try to paint a good picture… it goes back to Indian philosophy and Chinese philosophy,” he says. “The harder you try, the further the image will go away from you.”
Tony had not met Lindy Lee until he painted her. Captivated by her personality after seeing her in an interview at an art gallery, he recalls how she walked straight up his driveway without saying a word, into his studio, and then meditated while he sketched her.
“When I paint a human being, I think you are special, I think you’re talented, I think you’re wonderful. I love the way you think. So when I painted Lindy Lee, I was fascinated that she was a Zen Buddhist. She’s highly disciplined, she’s highly focussed… all the things that I like about people.”
While it was completed in just two days, the painting sat on his easel for six months. To him the portrait was “quiet”. So quiet that he expected the judges to completely dismiss it.
THE PHONE CALL
A phone call from an unknown number at a quarter to nine on May 10 last year, would leave Tony in what he says has been a “state of perpetual astonishment”.
“I picked up the phone and the person at the other end said, ‘is that you Tony?’ He said, ‘this is Michael Brand, the director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.’ Then the phone cut out.”
Tony assumed Michael Brand was calling to tell him the painting had been ruined or fallen off the wall. “He went grey,” Jeanette recalls, “and I was quite calm and just said why don’t you ring back. But then his colour came back.”
Then the phone rang again, and he would hear the words, “Tony it is Michael Brand. You’re not dreaming, and I’m ringing to tell you that you won the Archibald Prize”.
Just a few hours later, he was standing on stage in front of 2500 people accepting a cheque for $100,000 from NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
*Tony Costa and Lindy Lee standing next to last year’s Archibald Prize winning portrait (Photo: Jeannette Siebols)
What is most striking about Tony is his humility, despite winning what is arguably the most prestigious art prize in Australia.
He had a humble upbringing in Sydney’s Inner West. His interest in art was sparked when a school teacher took him landscape painting on the Hawkesbury River at age 13.
“I still kept doing art throughout high school… I was okay, I wasn’t brilliant at it,” he says with a shrug.
Towards the end of his schooling, art drifted to the periphery and he pursued a career in law.
“I remember sitting in the court room – we were supposed to be taking notes – but I was actually drawing the people that were sitting in front of me, like a court reporter does drawings.”
Torn between following his passion and pursuing a career of stability, he approached his Mum for advice.
“Mum had been washing dishes at the kitchen sink. ‘Follow your heart,’ she said, and I thought she said ‘follow your art’.”
It was those three words that prompted him to go to the District Court and quit his job and begin his artistic journey, which would take him across the world to places such as New York and Italy. He still counts his mother as one of his biggest influences.
“When I won my first art prize four years ago, my mother was alive. And I went over to her place and I said, ‘I won the Paddington Art Prize today.’ She says, ‘how much is it?’ And I said ‘I think $20,000’.
“She started to cry. I said, ‘why are you crying?’ And she said, ‘because I’ve been waiting for a long time’. She was 97-years-old.”
At 65-years-old, some might think it’s late to start winning prizes. But for Tony, “time is irrelevant.” Despite receiving increased acclaim in recent years, he says it’s not about the money or reputation.
“Going into the art world is a scary place because there’s no guarantee of money. It’s a huge leap of faith.
“Everyone has their own thing. It’s important to find that thing in life. ‘Cause, you know, it keeps you buoyant and you want to be doing something that you love.”
Tony springs up to show me a section of his studio dedicated to shelves of old furniture and a glass cabinet filled with porcelain ornaments.
He then prises open a third shed in his backyard that is filled with restored furniture. His eyes light up as he tells me about his passion for antiques, which also helps him get by. “It’s like being an archaeologist and things are buried,” he says.
Life has “turned around” for him since that call last May, and he has found he’s had to rely less on the furniture.
“I’m selling more paintings, you know, there’s more demand… I’m hoping that I’ll get to do more painting, less furniture.”
While the prize has meant that he now gets recognised during visits to art galleries and has developed a close friendship with Lindy Lee, he still feels like the same Tony.
“The prize hasn’t changed me as a person, but it has given me a little boost of confidence. It’s just lovely to know there are people out there who think that what I’m doing is good and worthwhile.”