Five years ago, author Kylie Needham was given a surprise birthday present by her then 12-year-old son Joe. The oil on canvas self-portrait had been created in secret in her husband’s studio.
“I was so proud of it, but I could see he was really proud of himself too,” says Needham.
“I had no idea that he could paint that well actually … There’s a real restraint to it that surprised me. He’s said a lot with a little.”
The impressionistic self-rendering captures a far away gaze, bordering on solemnity. Needham says it is in contrast to her son’s typically jovial nature. “He’s actually a really social, sporty kid. So that is a really occasional look for Joe. There’s almost a sadness to it that is not really his character.”
“I can see him in there … [but] he’s much more cheery than that.”
Needham puts it down to creative intensity. “The focus you need to look at your face objectively I think translates sometimes to a certain sternness … I can see Joe really concentrating on the work.”
Needham and her husband, artist Ben Quilty, encouraged Joe to enter the piece in the Mosman Youth Art prize, where it was shortlisted. “We drove two hours up to Mosman to see it and it was just such a thrill for him to see it out of the context of his own home.”
“Joe almost hadn’t learned yet to be too self-critical, he was just doing it. There’s a real sense of freedom in the execution … I hope he can hang on to it.”
Now 17, Joe is still painting.
“He wrote a message on the back in pencil, it’s started to fade and it’s very hard to read now,” Needham says. “To me there’s something so sad about that, it reminds me of what is happening to him as he grows up.”
“That little boy is just disappearing, and we’re getting something else, we’re getting this young man. It’s a bit sad as a mum, but it’s also quite joyful, because I can see him coming into his own.”
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