The Gold Coast Art Prize is a national prize, open to artists from across Australia. For the 2014 prize, awarded earlier this year, there were eight local entries amongst the 43 that were selected. While the main prize was awarded to Melbourne-based artists Sonia Leber and David Chesworth for their work We Are Printers Too (2013), the People’s Choice Award went to local artist Leonie Rhodes for her piece Uncle JC.
Leonie tells me that winning an award like the GC Art Prize People’s Choice Award is extremely significant.
“For me, particularly so. I put so much time and energy into my sculpture and the way I work is unusual in the way that I’m capturing every tiny detail. So it can be challenging to survive while you’re working at that pace,” she said.
Leonie also acknowledged the psychological challenge of not being acknowledged when you’re putting so much into your work. She says the subject of her winning piece himself conjured a dedication to accuracy she couldn’t ignore. She also says she was more focused than ever before with this work.
“Because of my passion for him and what he’s been through as a survivor of the stolen generation, addiction and homophobia, sculpting this piece was the most focus I’ve ever had in my career. The time and energy put in was amplified.”
“To have that acknowledged was really important. To be honest, I thought if I didn’t win this, I couldn’t win anything. It’s given me enough impetus to go back into my studio and to carry on. To have so many people acknowledge my work is massive encouragement to continue.”
The subject she speaks so passionately about is Uncle Jack Charles – described as both an indomitable survivor and the grandfather of Indigenous theatre.
He’s an Aboriginal elder, actor, musician and potter. He’s also a recovering heroin addict and well-known jailbird. He later became addicted to methadone. Born at Cummeragunja Mission on the Murray River, he was a member of the Stolen Generation and grew up in a boys’ home in Melbourne where he was the only Indigenous child and subjected to abuse.
Her sculpture is the culmination of literally hundreds and hundreds of hours of work: through the process of photographing Jack, the actual sculpting and then making the bronze.
Leonie says it was Swell Sculpture Festival Director Natasha Edwards who suggested she sculpt Jack.
“I met Jack at Woodford Folk Festival,” Leonie said. “But it was Natasha who suggested that I make a piece of Jack. Then we became friends and I began to research more. Then Natasha funded a trip to Sydney for myself and film maker Lynsey Allett to go Sydney so we could meet Jack and get the images I need to work from.”
More than 40,000 people viewed the art works entered in the Gold Coast Art Prize and I asked Leonie whether she would have preferred to win the main award. She said the People’s Choice Award is the one she’s happy to lay claim to.
“That’s what matters to me,” she said. “I like making art work for the people, about the people, rather than art work for the scene itself and I think that’s also the case with Jack himself. He’s a real people’s man,” Leonie said.
She also spoke about Jack’s heroin addiction and her own thoughts on addiction and society. “He was a heroin addict for 35 years,” she said. “While maintaining his film and stage career.”
“Jack is open about his story and it walks with him. The view I have about addiction is that drugs become a tool for survival and they form a survival framework for people that we’re still lucky to have in the world,” Leonie said.
Leonie’s sculpture of Uncle Jack Charles is small. Most of her work is small. And she tells me about her upcoming entry in Swell Sculpture Festival, which will be the first year she’s not been an ‘emerging artist’.
“I’ve been acquired by Council and I’ve won an award. I’m a professional artist now,” she said. “I’m excited about the upcoming Swell because I’ll be showing my first coloured bronze,” she said. “I’m going to be working on bronzes which look like my original pieces.”
And yes, they’ll be small too. Though she says people have expectations that she’ll eventually graduate to making larger sculptures.
“I used to work in steel when I was in London. It’s very much a choice to be working at this scale and my work is about trying to create a shift in perspective for the viewer,” she said. Leonie says when the eye moves from a large piece of work to a small piece, the shift in perspective is similar to what happens during meditation.
“When you shift down to that smaller detail, it brings you closer to focusing on what’s within,” she said. “I like the intimacy that is created between the viewer and the piece. It’s almost psychedelic in the way that it affects your brain. It also amplifies your environment – the environment seems much larger and richer when you pull away from the piece.”
“To put so much energy into this tiny thing may seem pointless to some people – but to me it’s meditative and that kind of magic is transferred to the viewer,” she said.
When I first met Leonie a week before our interview she was lamenting the fact that such a significant piece as her prize-winning bronze of Uncle Jack Charles was yet to be acquired. I ask her what she plans to do with it.
“A private collector actually acquired it just last night,” she said.
But that’s not the end of the story. Leonie explains that because it’s a bronze she can make more and that she wants one to be place publicly. And that it makes sense for that piece to be placed in Collingwood.
“That’s where Jack is from,” Leonie said. “That’s his ‘hood. He was there when he was using and he still lives there now that he’s clean.”
“I’d be willing to sell the piece at cost if it could be installed,” she said.
Read more about Leonie’s work at http://leonierhodes.com and learn more about Uncle Jack Charles online. Or watch this video of the moment Jack meets Jack for the very first time: vimeo.com/77392118.