At 18, Jessica Gurnsey is the youngest person to win the prestigious Adam Portraiture Award and its $20,000 prize, for her vibrant and personal self-portrait Lady Day. The artwork was based on a photograph Gurnsey’s friend Wilhelmina Heeringa took one carefree evening before the first lockdown.
The Wellington-born, Auckland-based artist met Tyson Beckett at a Ponsonby cafe to talk about life before and after the win.
“I’m happy that the judges [of the Adam Portraiture Award] recognised the detail and the time spent that went into Lady Day. I think they got the gist of the painting. It’s quite new for my kind of style to have won the award. I was looking through some Facebook comments and lots of people - well, art critics - were saying that the runner up should have won because of the cultural impact and because they were an established artist. That opened my eyes to how significant the win was too.
Being an artist is such a personal, private thing until your work is displayed. Until you send it away or have the exhibition, that's when you're brought together with other people so it's a very vulnerable part of yourself.
I think it's quite cool that I, at a young age, have been able to share something so of my generation. Usually artists' work starts getting recognised when they are older, but as of right now I think my work is quite reflective of my friendships and of my life. It's cool that I have the platform to share that work.
The picture I painted was taken in my friend’s bedroom, and she is into older music but I would say I have a pretty current music taste, I'm like Benny Tipene, Harry Styles and whatnot so when I'm with them in my friend group I feel like I'm kind of opened up to that world in a way.
When I'm with my friends, they show me what their parents showed them, and what they've collected. I feel like a part of being a teenager and finding your way and what you like is quite heavily influenced by other people and who you surround yourself with on a day-to-day basis.
That is what also makes the painting a little bit more special to me - that's not my music on the wall, that's my friend's. That's what she plays when we're around and that's kind of the specialty of our friendship.
My dad has really interesting music taste. He played me this one song called Tomorrow Night by The Front Lawn and it literally describes me, it's so weird. I was born in Lower Hutt and it says, ‘She loves Wellington, grew up in the Hutt Valley, she moved to the city’. One day I put on Twitter that this song is speaking to my soul and my dad said, ‘I've been playing that song to you since you were a baby’. It's all so crazy coincidental. I listen to that song a lot.
I'm taking a break from Elam. I just have no time to paint and the whole focus at the moment, in the first years of uni, is finding your specialty and what you want to get into. I'm at a stage where I just want to be painting. I know what I want to do but I have no time because I'm busy arranging objects or listening to trees.
I paint in my room. It doesn't feel like a job. I don't feel the need to seperate my worlds. I like painting and I literally watch movies and stuff while I paint. My work is photo-realism style so I'm not using all my thoughts to work, I zone into the colours and the technique and I can kind of simultaneously keep myself entertained. I'll look at certain parts of the painting and think, “oh yep that's season 4, episode 12”.
I think everyone's just trying to make the most of their uni experiences. We went in with not very high expectations because it was online from the get go. It was really weird going back in person.
I met quite a few people during O Week and then I ended up getting Covid - and then long Covid - so I had no energy to reinforce those friendships or establish and build on that. Covid still impacts our friendships and our lives.
My whole social circle went down to Wellington. All my close friends are down there and I'm moving down there when I'm done with uni. Going through the pandemic with my friend group that I had in high school really brought us together. If you're going through hard things with people inevitably your relationship becomes stronger. We got through a lockdown for three months without seeing each other - so I think we'll be fine for the future.”