Yvette Coppersmith’s studio is a converted garage behind her Caulfield home, 12 kilometres south-east from Melbourne's CBD. It’s small and neat – definitely a workspace – and her elegant, mid-century style is everywhere. On the walls are half-finished paintings and postcards of masterworks that have influenced her practice: self-portraits by Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo; a back and white Man Ray photograph of a woman holding an African mask; and The Red Shawl, a portrait by George Lambert, one of Coppersmith’s favourite artists.
Her cat Nounou, 20 years old and completely deaf, brushes past my ankles.
Coppersmith has worked here for three years. She keeps long hours. After winning the 2018 Archibald Prize in May it’s been a crazy month, and she’s just getting back into the swing of things. The painter pulled an all-nighter a few days ago working on a self-portrait that’s not quite working out and a privately commissioned, official, posthumous portrait.
“Dead people are so hard to paint,” Coppersmith says. “They don’t give you anything.”
It’s here that Coppersmith stood for some weeks, hand on hip, painting Self-Portrait, after George Lambert, which won the coveted Archibald, the annual portraiture prize awarded by the Art Gallery of NSW. The threadbare yellow throw that appeared as the backdrop is still pinned to the wall.
Coppersmith captured herself in a powerful, confident pose, lips pursed, cheeks rouged. She used a mirror instead of a photo. “I was looking in a mirror, day after day,” she says. “My energy was always shifting. I’m using my physical self as a reference, but I’m trying to tap into the energy that’s going to communicate something authentic.”
“There are self-portraits everywhere now, but this is different,” Coppersmith says. She’s talking about selfies and the huge number of people currently constructing identity through an accumulation of self-portraits. “A painting will speak across generations.”
Coppersmith’s approach to self-portraiture is still about constructing identity, but it’s less immediate than a selfie. She captures an accumulation of moments in the mirror, then combines and channels them into something more solid and long-lasting.
“Self-portraiture is a space where you can be your own imagined self,” she says. “You don’t have to stick to your day-to-day persona.”
Looking around, there’s evidence of Coppersmith’s other portraiture work.
Sketches for a depiction of Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs, which was an Archibald finalist in 2017, shows Triggs emerging from a backdrop of blue-green shapes. Triggs, the besieged former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, spent many hours here posing for the portrait, which was inspired by the work of painter Rah Fizelle. Coppersmith cooked steaks, steamed corn and made a salad from her garden before the sitting. They got to know each other.
“Triggs was the only person in Australia with authority who spoke for me,” says Coppersmith. “I only heard of her because of the way she was being treated. I was actually concerned about her. Then I realised she wasn’t a victim. She was composed and tough.”
This morning, after time in the studio, Coppersmith takes an op-shopping break. It’s a big part of her process; the props in her Archibald-winning portrait were op-shop finds. She’s a collector of objects and influences of a certain between-the-wars flavour. Both of the aforementioned painters, George Lambert and Rah Fizelle, worked in Australia in the early-to-mid 20th century.
Coppersmith’s portraits have something beyond aesthetic in common: they’re all collages of identities.
Self-portrait, after George Lambert, depicts the artist clad in other people’s clothes, crediting another artist as inspiration, with yet another layer behind all of that: it was initially supposed to be a portrait of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Coppersmith had hoped to inspire young women by painting a woman in a position of power.
“Ardern is a leader, a mold breaker, and she looks quite feminine. But when you show a photo of Jacinda to a man they say she’s really pretty. It’s disappointing. We need to expand what our image of a woman signifies. Women self-limit.”
When Ardern was unavailable, Coppersmith turned her thoughts to a self-portrait, but kept something of Ardern’s essence in the piece.
“It didn’t need to be literal,” she says. “I started thinking of it as a self-portrait as PM. But I was trying to be someone else. It wasn’t working. In the end, I quit trying to be the prime minister and just let it happen.”
Another recent piece, Self-Portrait as St Vincent Wearing Cara's Dress, currently a finalist in the Geelong Contemporary Art Prize, does exactly what it says on the tin: Coppersmith imagines herself as Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter St Vincent. She’s clad in a dress belonging to St Vincent’s ex-girlfriend, Cara Delevingne, her hair transformed into cropped ivory locks. The rough, thick brushstrokes give the painting a more urgent feel than the others have.
“I was thinking about how St Vincent went through this huge, public relationship, then they broke up,” Coppersmith says. “You have to gather those bits of yourself back in to continue making your work. I was thinking about that, probably in relation to me going through something similar.
“In some ways that painting is a vehicle for processing my life,” says Coppersmith.
I suggest there must be an element of that in all her work. I whistle at the cat, then remember she’s deaf.
“I came at [different works] from different creative processes,” says Coppersmith, “but they’re all about how images of others help us think about ourselves. Whether it’s looking for professional or creative role models, or sexuality.”
Ardern, Triggs and St Vincent are role models; they’re leaders who shrug off agitation with the sheer force of self. They’re all contemporary figures, too, but Coppersmith’s mid-century modernist aesthetic lends them timelessness.
“About five years ago I realised the art I was inspired by was so different to what I was making,” Coppersmith says. “There’s a historical language I’m referencing, but it’s not always modernist. Art is a visual language. It’s all there for the taking.”
When I leave, she heads back to the studio to work more. Long hours are part of the job.