JENNY Sages is a finalist in this year’s Archibald Prize — the 20th time she has been up for the prestigious portrait prize to date. But up until a few months ago, the artist was struggling to decide on a subject for her painting to follow up last year’s entry, a portrait of her beloved late husband, Jack, which also earned her a finalist nod.
“Jack’s portrait was very personal and meaningful. After doing that with all my heart, what can I do now? Pick up some celebrity and do a portrait? It would be trivial for me,” said Sages, 78, from her Double Bay studio.
At the time, the Tweed River Art Gallery was showing a large exhibition of her work as part of a travelling exhibition for the National Portrait Gallery called Jenny Sages: paths to portraiture. It was accompanied by a documentary by filmmaker Catherine Hunter, which included footage of Jack.
One morning, Sages and her daughter, Tanya, visited the exhibition to take some photos and found the usually quiet gallery filled with Jack’s voice, loud and clear, being broadcast overhead from the documentary.
“We looked at each other and both started sobbing. Tears flowing, Tanya picked up her camera and began to register my grief,” Sages recalled.
When they got home, they looked at the photos and then looked at each other: “We just nodded. We both knew.”
Sages was her own subject. In the following weeks, she worked on the self portrait titled After Jack, making sketches from the photos before eventually using her fingers to paint herself on a background of encaustic (a wax medium that was first used in the 14th century by Egyptians), which she then layered with wax, pigment and oil.
It’s only the second time she has done a self portrait. “I would’t call it cathartic, but everything that I do, I want a painting, a body of work that talks to me,” said Sages, who was born in Shanghai, China, and immigrated to Australia in 1948. “On the whole, it was interesting thing for me to do.”
Sages met her Turkish-born husband while travelling in Israel. Before his death in October 2010, they had been married for 55 years.
Surprisingly, when she looks at her portrait, she doesn’t dwell on the grief. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. “I see a painting, and I’m proud of it. The grief is there, but I’m interested in the painting.”
Pointing to the portrait, she adds: “Look at my neck. I’m really proud that I did a good neck.”
After Jack is one of 41 finalists from 839 entries in the Archibald Prize, which carries a first prize of $50,000. The winner will be announced on Friday, March 30 by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Meanwhile, Sages is also a finalist for the Wynne Prize with her landscape painting, After the dry season. She won the Wynne Prize in 2005, but to date has never won the Archibald.
Asked if she’s holding out for the big prize after all these years, she said: “Not really. I can’t take it on board.”
In the end, it’s all about her work — and moving on with life after Jack. “I’m really very lucky. The work saves me … But every time something happens, I need to come home and tell Jack.”
The finalists in the Archibald will be on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales from March 31-June 3, and at TarraWarra Museum of Art in Victoria’s Yarra Valley from June 10-July 8.
This article was originally published in the Australian Jewish News.