OK, is this a fresh hell? Or a prize-winning painting?

“OK, is this a fresh hell, or are we just adding to the regular one today?”

As artist Kirsty Budge looked at her near-finished painting, this title came to her as the final piece of the puzzle. She works in a surreal mode, trying to mainline her subconscious onto the canvas. And the work, with its fiery, tortured figures, had emerged as her mind and body’s reaction to Melbourne’s long lockdowns.

Budge taps into her personal experience and subconscious.Credit:Jason South

“It just felt like everything was just relentless,” she says. “You have to carry on with your job, still be a good person in the world, and you’re dealing with all these things that are thrown at you. It felt like it was layers, on top of layers, on top of layers.”

But after torture comes redemption. The painting has won Budge the prestigious Arthur Guy Memorial Painting Prize, worth $50,000, presented by Governor-General David Hurley on Friday night.

She’s shocked. She’s never won anything before, that she can recall.

“It’s absolutely life-changing,” she says. “It’s an insane amount of money. But it’s both the money, and the honour. It hasn’t really even sunk in yet.

“I could maybe buy a house?”

‘Ok, so is this a fresh hell or are we just adding to the regular one today?’ (detail)Credit:Kirsty Budge

The prize judges, including Jessica Bridgfoot, director at Bendigo Art Gallery, chose Budge’s work from 34 finalists noting its “energetic and elegant composition”.

“You sense a real enjoyment in the process of making,” they said. “This is clearly a painting in dialogue with history, while also resonating with our current times, bringing forth its own sense of landscape and narrative.”

Budge, 40, has an intuitive way of painting: she says it’s like a “push and pull, a call and response” between herself and the canvas. She can work on a section for five hours then decide she hates it, and she wipes it off, and discovers “some little magic” underneath. She will turn away from a canvas and ignore it, then return to it weeks later when she feels ready.

Fresh hell was partly inspired (she thinks) by her work at an art store across the road from her home studio, and how customer service felt during a pandemic.

“It’s just a different world right now,” she says. “Dealing with people’s anxiety, with their not being educated about rules and restrictions, and you and they are angry, and sad, and scared and aggressive. And it was about finding how you deal. How you stay safe and maintain some composure and professionalism. And it was like, ‘Oh, what’s next?’”

The pandemic lockdowns were a moment of self-discovery as well as artistic discovery for Budge. She’d always thought of herself as an introvert – she’s easily overloaded by the world, she likes her downtime.

“But this lockdown was even too much for me,” she says. “It gave me a newfound appreciation for when things open up – I will go and make more of an effort, I felt a new gratitude to, and an appreciation of, my community.”

Painting was a lifeline for her, it helped her process the world – the work would “look back at me and tell me that I exist”, so she kept working even while she wondered if anyone would see it.

“There’s just got to be more to life than just me with this bloody brush,” she says, laughing. “It can’t be everything. But it still feels really special, something I can lose myself in.”

The 2021 Arthur Guy Memorial Painting Prize finalists’ exhibition is on display at Bendigo Art Gallery from 20 November to 13 February.

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