James Powditch
Inspiration out of the box

Louise Schwartzkoff
The Sydney Morning Herald July 28, 2007


"It's a built painting made out of objects" … James Powditch's Mosman Art Prize winner, Butterfly Effects, is painted on re-used objects such as an old book and a packing crate.

FOR artists who compete in the Mosman Art Prize, there is one condition of entry: only a painting can win.

But James Powditch's entry in Australia's oldest municipal art competition uses scarcely any paint.

Before he so much as picked up a brush, the 40-year-old artist chopped up an old packing crate, ripped apart a second-hand history book and hunted down some old photos. He hammered and glued the objects into a solid rectangular board, then painted a large red butterfly over the top.

After the work arrived in Mosman, Powditch received a phone call from the gallery. It wanted to know whether his mixed media creation was, in fact, a painting.

"It's funny, because if I'd painted the butterfly on a blank piece on canvas, no one would have even mentioned it," he says. "If I'm entering a contest, I always manipulate my usual process to fit the rules. I assured them that as far as I was concerned, it was definitely a painting. It's a built painting made out of objects."

The gallery was convinced and last night awarded Powditch's Butterfly Effects the $20,000 major prize. The competition's judge, Deborah Edwards, a senior curator at the Art Gallery of NSW, thinks Powditch's work meets the criterion. "The definitions of what makes a painting are productively loose now. One doesn't have to be too hard and fast, as long as the work presents as a painted surface," she says.

Edwards selected Butterfly Effects from 820 entries. The painting, which explores the effect of climate change on fragile natural environments, will hang in the Mosman Art Gallery among the best works from past competitions. It's an impressive collection. Margaret Olley won the inaugural prize in 1947, and throughout its 60-year history the competition has attracted some of Australian art's biggest names. Grace Cossington Smith won in 1952, and Guy Warren in 1950 and 1965.

More recently, the major prize was won by Lucy Culliton, described by the Herald's art critic, John McDonald, as "one of the most talented painters in this country".

"This is not just any competition," Edwards says. "It has a venerable tradition as a painting prize and a venerable tradition of excellent painters as prize winners."

Over the next month, the gallery expects up to 5000 visitors. For Powditch, it's a chance to promote his work before his next exhibition. He plans to spend his prize on renovating his factory studio in Marrickville.

If less successful competitors grumble that Powditch's painting is actually a mixed media work rather than a painting, Edwards believes that can only be a good thing.

"If there's a bit of controversy about the winner, well, that sort of thing usually just enlivens the show."

The exhibition is at Mosman Art Gallery, corner of Art Gallery Way and Myahgah Road, Mosman, until August 26. Prize winners will speak about their works on August 12.

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