Reviews/Visual Art

Portraits of youth are a pleasure to behold

29 May 2023

Whether tender, disturbing, humorous or hopeful, the portraits by Australian high school students in this year’s Lester Youth Prize Awards impress teen critic Bethany Stopher.

The Lester Youth Prize Awards, various artists
WA Museum Boola Bardip

Chosen from over 170 submissions, the 32 portraits that make up the 2023 Lester Prize Youth Awards represent the multifaceted identity and experience of Australian youth, depicted via a kaleidoscopic range of mediums, subjects and emotions.

Younger sibling of the prestigious national competition The Lester Prize for Portraiture, The Lester Prize Youth Awards exhibition has displayed the best portraiture of young artists from Australia since 2007. Aspiring artists from years 7-12 are encouraged to depict an Australian that they respect, or a self-portrait. This year’s entries were judged by Nathan Beard, Carla Adams and Giorgia Mack.

Nyx Birkhead, ‘Unorthodox | Authentic’ (Self-portrait), oil on canvas. Year 11, School of Isolated and Distance Education, WA. Photo: supplied

The winner of the Year 11-12 category, Katura Halleday, depicts her sister in rainbow hues in My sister’s pride (pictured top left). Using alluring shades of pastel on paper, Halleday manipulates the challenging medium to portray light,capturing her sister Matika’s peaceful expression.

There’s a certain look of hope and earnestness in the tilt of the head, which reflects Halleday’s comment on the piece: “My sister has a deep soul; she sees wonder, colour and texture in every moment, and I wanted to capture her love of colour and her identity as a member of the LGBT community in this portrait.” A rightful winner, Halleday solidifies her sister’s persona in pastel.

Also in the Year 11-12 category is Nyx Birkhead’s self portrait Unorthodox| Authentic, a piece simultaneously disturbing and magnetic. Birkhead places themselves in dark lighting, painted clown face and hands pulling at eyes emerging out the gloom.

As a non-binary person, Birkhead confronts how they are viewed, both internally and by society. “I consider myself odd and feel as though others do too and wanted to portray that in my art,” they say. “The way I’m dressed is also of significance, as a nonbinary person I’ve always seen clowns as genderless, and find comfort and euphoria in dressing as them.” Framed in this context, this non-apologetic portrayal subverts the viewer’s expectations of the meaning behind a rather creepy character, and instead draws the eye to the slight smile of the subject’s face.

Audrey Crogan, ‘Courage in the greatest danger’, graphite on paper. Year 8, John Curtin College of the Arts, WA. Photo: supplied

From a younger aspiring artist, comes the charming acrylic portrait My Little Sister (pictured top right), created by year 8 student Jolie Reutens. Technically unique in its expression, this piece caught my eye across the room. Depicting her younger sister Jewel pulling a funny face at the camera, tongue brandished, and eyes rolled to the roof, Reutens incorporates a refreshing element of humour. Short, wide brush strokes create movement and captures the chaotic energy of the subject.

The winner of the Years 7-8 section, Audrey Crogan, makes commentary on her experiences of anxiety. With only graphite on paper, Crogan creates a hyper-realistic self-portrait, depicting herself in the throes of anxiety. Devil-like claws of hair protrude from her head, and settle around her face and shoulders as she stares defiantly at the viewer. The effect is mesmerising; I can’t look away. I can almost feel her struggle against her own mind, as her hair ensnares her.

Another impressive drawing is found in the work of Year 10 student Lottie Ercleve, in her tender portrait of sister Isabelle, titled Ocean Eyes. The attention to detail is truly admirable, from the texture of the skin and her fuzzy jumper to the individual brow hairs, furrowed over piercing blue eyes. The execution of the coloured pencils is consistent and seamless, resulting in an intense photo-realistic close-up, and a display of sisterly bonding.

Lottie Ercleve, ‘Ocean eyes’, colour pencil on paper. Year 10, Shenton College, WA. Photo: supplied

Touching on matters from gender expression and mental health to explorations of multicultural identities and tributes of family love, the young artists from this year’s Lester Prize Youth Awards provide a raw, evocative experience.

The Lester Prize Youth Awards exhibition is currently displayed at the WA Boola Bardip museum, free of entry, until 16 July 2023.

Pictured top: Katura Halleday, ‘My sister’s pride’, pastel on paper. Year 12, All Saints Anglican School, QLD (left) and Jolie Reutens, ‘My little sister’, acrylic on canvas. Year 8, Du FN Academy of Fine Arts, WA (right). Photos: supplied

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Bethany Stopher has long brown hair over her shoulders and is smiling at the camera

Author —
Bethany Stopher

Young writer Bethany Stopher is a high school student who has a passion for ballet and creative writing. She is drawn to shiny things, pretty words, and big hugs. Her favourite piece of playground equipment is the swings because it feels like flying.

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