Artist Laura Jones completely missed the call when the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) director, Michael Brand, tried to phone her early this morning.

Brand was ringing with some very important news: Jones had been named winner of this year’s Archibald Prize for her portrait of author and conservationist Tim Winton.

“I only realised it was Michael when he called back again and said, ‘I hope I didn’t wake you.’ He didn’t, it was a weird glitch with my phone, I couldn’t answer it,” says Jones, with a laugh.

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A four-time Archibald finalist and 2024 Sulman Prize finalist, Jones had contacted Winton by letter requesting a sitting after meeting him at a 2017 environmental advocacy event. She included various reef paintings she’d made of the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.

Incredibly, it is the first time the dual Miles Franklin Award-winning author (Cloudstreet, 1991, and Breath, 2008) and environmental advocate has sat for an Archibald portrait. The traditionally media-shy West Australian agreed after speaking to Jones by phone and seeing the passion she displayed for ocean conservation in her paintings.

“Tim gave me a call and we had a great chat on the phone. He’s finishing a book and said if I could come to Fremantle in a couple of weeks he’d be happy to meet me and have a chat and do the sitting. So we did that all in one go, about two hours,” Jones says.

The large oil on linen of Winton outdoors in a lane near his home is painted in a neutral palette and depicts a serious man gazing distractedly into the distance.

“Tim rang me this morning to congratulate me and made a joke that he thought he looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. But he does, and we all do, and I hope we can all unite over the environment,” she says.

Jones’s $100,000 prize-winning portrait was selected from 1005 entries and 57 finalists, 46 per cent of them first-time finalists. Among them are portraits of 16 fellow artists including Tsering Hannaford’s painting of her father Robert and Anna Mould’s Joan Ross; nine stage and screen actors, three of them from the hit Netflix series Heartbreak High (Jessie Bourke’s Chloé Hayden, Kelly Maree’s Josh Heuston and Kris Andrew Small’s Will McDonald); and seven musicians and dancers including Matt Adnate’s Packing Room Prize-winning portrait of Baker Boy and Australian Ballet principal dancer Callum Linnane by Marcus Wills.

A Sydney artist, Jones works across painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture. Her practice frequently interrogates the relationship between humanity and nature.

“As a little girl in Kurrajong I dreamed about being an artist. I’ve been lucky enough to make that dream come true. I hope this win might inspire more young girls to pursue a career in the Australian art world,” she says.

Incredibly, she is only the 12th woman to have won in the competition’s 104-year history.

This year’s Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes were all won by female artists. It is only the second time this has happened following the 2016 Archibald Prize win by Louise Hearman for her portrait of Barry Humphries.

The winner of the $50,000 Wynne prize for landscape or figure sculpture was Yolngu elder Djakangu Yunupingu, whose arresting work Nyalala gurmilili is painted with natural pigments on a piece of bark that stretches almost three metres. It depicts the “sunrise side” in Yolngu Matha, the north-easternmost part of Arnhem Land that receives the first rays of morning light, and the story of a group of spirit women who appear as spirits in the night sky.

After hearing of her win, Yunupingu, the daughter of renowned artist Mungurrawuy Yunupingu, said in a video message: “The songs of this painting were given to me by our father, Mungurrawuy. It shows the songs of the seven sisters in the stars crying. Now I am crying, but this time with happiness.”

The winner of the $40,000 Sulman Prize for best subject painting, genre painting or mural was Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) elder Naomi Kantjuriny for her polymer paint on linen work Minyma mamu tjuta, which shows hundreds of good and bad spirits known as mamu scurrying through the bush.

“I started working at my art centre, Tjala Arts, many years ago alongside senior women ... I’ve been painting for 30 years and I love it. I love what my art centre is and the support it provides for my community ... Our culture is in everything we do, and I hope culture will be celebrated at Tjala Arts forever,” Kantjuriny said in a statement.

The $40,000 Sulman Prize was this year judged by artist Tom Polo, the winning work selected from among 40 finalists – more than half of whom were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander artists. The Archibald and Wynne prizes are judged by the AGNSW board of trustees, including artists Tony Albert and Caroline Rothwell.

The Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes 2024 exhibition is on at the Art Gallery of NSW from June 8 to September 8.

artgallery.nsw.gov.au