Merrick Belyea wins John Stringer Prize

LYN DI CIERO

Merrick Belyea, winner of the 2021 John Stringer Prize, with his work Brigadoon, 2021, oil on board, 5 panels. Photo Sue-Lyn Boyle. 

After being announced as winner the prestigious John Stringer Prize at John Curtin Gallery, a very surprised Merrick Belyea says he didn’t expect to win as there were other worthy nominees. “Often art prizes are won by works a bit more complex than just one medium, or are pushing boundaries in other ways,” he says. “My work as a painter uses the language of paint – as simple as that, so I wasn’t expecting to win at all.” 
 
Another five artists, Theo Costantino, Daniel Kristjansson, Clare McFarlane, Ross Potter and Lea Taylor, were invited to produce work for the annual award, aimed at recognising and supporting outstanding Western Australian visual art practice, generously supported by The Collectors Club and the Kerry Stokes Collection. This year artists were selected for inclusion by an independent selection panel consisting of Chris Malcolm, Director, John Curtin Gallery; Dr Laetitia Wilson, Exhibitions Manager, Janet Holmes à Court Collection and Nathan Giles, Executive Director, Perth Public Art Foundation.
 
The winning entry, as voted by members of The Collectors Club, considered the work was visually stunning, with depth and atmosphere that was relevant in today’s world with its increasing destruction of the environment.

 

Belyea says he was was happy with his work, especially once it was hung. “John Curtin Gallery has a habit of hanging artwork very well, and getting the best out of works, so if the work’s not good enough, it shows. I felt like mine stood up,” he says. 
 
The Prize was established in memory of John Stringer, renowned Curator of the Kerry Stokes Collection and advisor to The Collectors Club, who passed away in 2007. It honours John’s life and the legacy of his influence on and contribution to local visual arts and culture. In keeping with John’s passionate devotion to the arts, and his wish to see greater patronage of local talent, the Prize is intended to encourage and support Western Australian artists. The Prize, which was conceived and facilitated by The Collectors Club, connects locally based artists with collectors, thus contributing to the vibrancy and economic viability of the Western Australian art scene.

 

Belyea says having known John when he was alive, and the fact people still talk about him more than a decade after his death, speaks volumes. “As a curator he made an impact helping artists as well as the people he was working for in a curatorial capacity – and that’s not to criticise current curators, but he’s remembered fondly for that – from collectors to artists. To be associated with his name is a great honour.”

 

Belyea’s winning work Brigadoon, consists of five panels, the result of numerous visits to the suburb over about nine months. “It’s an extension of previous work,” he says. “My current habit is to go for short road trips around the edges of suburbia. That could be a coastal edge or a bit of remnant bushland in the middle of suburbia. In this case, it was the Darling Scarp. I’d start with sketches and colour studies and sometimes a little oil sketch. And then take that back to the studio. I might take a photograph, but only as reference to remind me where I was. I don’t work from photographs. I work purely from the preparatory drawings.”

 

Visiting the same site Belyea noticed the difference in the landscape and climate each time, capturing parts of the seasons. “It ended up being a bit of a meditation about the fact we’re slowly coming to understand the idea that an Australian season is different to a European season. We’re finally admitting it and using the correct language to try and describe it. But that also arrives ironically at a time where we’re finally admitting that a European history of industrialisation has affected the climate. We’re understanding two subtleties, one tragic and one quite magical, at the same time,” he says.
 
Then there’s a certain irony injected into the work through the name of the suburb of Brigadoon, also the fictional Scottish village of Robert Burns’ poem Tam o’ Shanter, in which the village only appears every 100 years. The story of tourists who stumble upon the village was made into a Broadway musical in 1947, and later a film starring Gene Kelly in 1954. Belyea says there’s also the idea of our habit of naming places. “Even naming things becomes a misunderstanding of the landscape. I’m conscious of the fact being a contemporary artist, when you use the landscape as a subject, it can be a fraught subject to the point of being political.”

 

The $12,500 prize money Belyea will receive will be directed towards his practice. “I’ve got a new studio, so I might build a mezzanine,” he says. “I’ll keep it away from the  mortgage – the bank can wait the next 30 years for that.”
 
The John Stringer Art Prize is on show at John Curtin Gallery until 15 December.   
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