“The question is, always, can painting be continually stretched further into the future?”
For the Australian painter Nigel Milsom, who over the last three years has won over a quarter of a million dollars in painting awards, $30,000 for the Sulman Prize in 2012, a $150,000 in 2013 for the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize and most recently a $100,000 for this year’s Archibald Prize, it is the question that confronts him each time he stands in front of his easel.
As he told the Sydney Morning Herald’s Andrew Taylor "I think painting becomes more difficult as you get older and the longer you do it. It does for me…But at the same time you have to find a way to do it. That's a challenging thing that keeps me going. It keeps you feeling like your art is floating and you never grow old or grow up. You feel like a kid all the time. And that's a good thing but also stressful because it creates a lot of anxiety. That never changes."
In 2002 Milsom graduated from the University of New South Wales with a MFA and then proceed on a voyage of self-discovery in his chosen profession; learning to see for himself and develop consistency and persistence. As he explained to Artand’s Ingrid Periz “Art schools don’t teach you to be curious about painting and don’t instill in you the will to make things.”
Milsom turned to drugs to handle his compulsion to paint and its associated anxiety. As the Business Insider reported from a police transcript “I was just taking ice, smoking ice. And then when I wanted to stop and [do] some work, or slow down, I’d smoke the heroin. Then I’d smoke the ice again, and I’d do some work, and then I’d smoke the heroin.”
Whilst this regime seemingly helped with is painting it also led Milsom to commit reckless acts of misadventure like robbing a seven eleven in the inner Sydney suburb of Glebe. With the money from his Sulman Prize win still in his bank account, Milsom and his drug dealer, armed with a tomahawk, a toy gun and knife, bashed the store clerk and made off with cash, cigarettes and phone cards. For his efforts Milsom was sentenced to six and half years behind bars.
Milsom’s incarceration was a time out that he later considered a life saver. As he has said “I think it was a process of slowing down and definitely you have a lot of time to reflect when you're locked in a cell. I guess with my mental health and physical health it gradually all repaired itself. But the repair job, if you want to call it that, was forced on me in a way I wasn't really aware of at the time, but it probably saved my life."
Charles Waterstreet, who was the subject for Milsom’s Archibald win, managed to get his sentence reduced so that the artist was out on parole and able to accept this current award in person.
Three years in the making Milsom came to regard the criminal lawyer as somewhat of a mythical creature. As he told the Sydney Morning Herald after winning the award "He's played a big role in my life in the last three years. I felt I got to know him to the point I was thinking about him when I wasn't even with him. When you're placing so much hope in someone and his ability to somehow steer you through a course you have no control over, he becomes mythical."
Milsom’s portrait of Waterstreet is currently on show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until the 27th of September.