The validation of being judged by your peers

The Hornsby Art Prize is a gift for artists, offering so much more than simply the financial rewards, says last year’s winner, Ryan Daffurn.
Hornsby Art Prize. Image is of a blond haired white man in his 30s holding a bunch of flowers and standing in front of his painting, which depicts a young woman lying across a red armchair with big gold hooped earrings, rolled up brown trousers, a green and white crop top and high heeled brown and white zebra print shoes, with various hands and arms reaching in from the edges of the frame holding balloons, striking a match, making gestures at her. She looks off to the right.

Established in 2009, the Hornsby Art Prize is an initiative of the Hornsby Shire Council that was developed with a slew of laudable goals, including increasing the awareness of culture and visual arts within the region, and recognising the art form’s contribution when it comes to fostering a healthy and vibrant community.

For last year’s major winner Ryan Daffurn, however, there was another significant aspect of the Prize that encouraged him to enter.

‘James Powditch was a judge and I admire his work,’ says Daffurn. ‘I don’t know James, but that did influence my choice to know that artists are involved and that artists helped make the decision. It gives applicants confidence that the work will be judged on its merits and it’s in sympathetic hands. So that was a major motivation.’

Powditch shared jury duties with two other artists in 2023 – Nicole Mather and Chris Langlois. The judging panel varies from year to year, but the preferred line-up comprises at least a couple of artists and perhaps a curator/or gallery director.

And this is only one way that the competition’s organisers nurture those who enter the Prize, which covers five categories every year – Painting, Drawing, Printmaking, Digital Art-Stills/Digital Photography and Sculpture. Attending the announcement of the winners was also an enriching experience, says Daffurn. ‘It was quite an intimate and warm ceremony, a very positive atmosphere and quite casual and relaxed.

‘I was really impressed by the support of the Hornsby Council and staff,’ he adds. ‘They were very warm and approachable. But I felt they were also very experienced and serious. So, the whole enterprise around the Prize has this lovely aesthetic and atmosphere, including a strong professionalism.’

He also appreciated the way the judges relayed their verdict. ‘There was feedback and explanation of their decisions. Not for every artist, but for the relevant winners, which were quite a few. That was really helpful for other artists to see the Prize and understand the consideration that’s involved. There’s a sense of trust there… and if artists are at the centre of the judging process, I do believe that the award has more regard within artist circles. It just feels more legitimate. Maybe it’s a sense of transparency that is refreshing nowadays.’

Seeing the other entries, Daffurn was impressed that the judges didn’t seem to be going for safe or easy options. ‘The selection was eclectic, but very experimental,’ he says. ‘There were a lot that seemed to have a very individual and strong aesthetic.’

‘The finalists’ artwork seemed ambitious and even a little bit challenging… and the overall selection was very, very strong.’

Daffurn felt at home in this line-up, with an artwork that he himself has described as hard to categorise. ‘I do understand the painting has a slightly odd mood and atmosphere, even a creepy one. Which is the point of the painting really. It conveys the kind of para-social relationships which can exist nowadays between people across chat and social media platforms, that are divorced from reality. Also, it portrays an unhealthy kind of attention that is thrust upon a public individual. The painting is about the desire to cross this boundary and the tension in that dialectic of roles.’

Quick sale

The prize is non-acquisitive, but there was further joy for Daffurn when his work Proposition 5, 4, 3, 2, 1! sold on opening night of the winners’ exhibition. ‘I didn’t actually get to meet the gentleman that bought it, but I believe he purchased a couple of works that night,’ he says.

Of course, the other major drawcard is the Prize itself, which offers a total prize pool of $23,000, with $10,000 allocated to the major winner. In 2023, a record-breaking 610 artworks were submitted for entry, which were whittled down to 84 finalists, before Daffurn was selected for the top prize.

And the financial reward has been an absolute boon for his practice in the year since. ‘It’s been tremendous,’ says Daffurn. ‘The funds helped directly in a number of things. Everything from building a bank of materials and art supplies to paying studio rent… basically all the money went back into the career.

‘I also had a few new things that I was about to launch. For example, the financial help allowed me to focus entirely on new work in the studio for an upcoming exhibition in Sydney… And I was able to just cut away a few other obligations and focus on this work. There’s a town near Bathurst called Hill End and the funds allowed me to go there and do some more research and pay for photography,’ explains Daffurn.

‘So, the money was spread out across a number of things, including this upcoming project, which was fantastic,’ he concludes.

Entries for the Hornsby Art Prize open on 3 June 2024 and close on 8 August 2024. The prize is open to all Australian residents aged 18 years and over.

The Finalists’ exhibition will be at the Wallarobba Arts and Cultural Centre from 25 October to 10 November 2024. For more information about the prize and details on how to enter.

Madeleine Swain is ArtsHub’s managing editor. Originally from England where she trained as an actor, she has over 25 years’ experience as a writer, editor and film reviewer in print, television, radio and online. She is also currently Vice Chair of JOY Media.