Award-winning QCA artist on how his passion shaped his success
For Queensland College of Art (QCA) alumnus Michael Zavros, success means making authentic art that comes from within.
Multiple-award-winning artist Michael Zavros turned a childhood passion for drawing into an enviable international art career that has seen his work exhibited in major museums around the world.
But with early aptitude comes a burden of expectation that Zavros has felt for most of his life.
“I’ve always had an interest in drawing what’s inside me, and when I was a kid I could do that,” he says. “You’re told you’re an artist even when you’re very little, so you grow up with this mantle that’s bestowed on you. You hope you can carve out a living from this thing you love.”
Zavros has achieved that, and much more. After graduating from the QCA with a Bachelor of Visual Arts in 1996, it took the emerging young artist just five years to score his first solo exhibition.
He went on to exhibit his work in a string of solo exhibitions at some of the most prestigious galleries in Australia, and made international headlines when he won the world’s richest prize for portraiture – the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize – in 2010.
Zavros won the Bulgari Art Award from the Art Gallery of New South Wales just two years later, and has since exhibited his work in high-profile solo exhibitions at Art Basel Hong Kong (2015) and Art Los Angeles Contemporary (2016).
But his success hasn’t come by accident. As a young artist, he knew he needed an education that would help him to expand his technical skills. He found it at QCA.
“Many of the techniques I use haven’t changed for centuries and I think that’s what’s so wonderful about QCA in particular – they are really interested in that kind of technical learning,” he says.
“I think it’s so important for an artist to understand what’s come before them and how we read art. That better informs the thing you’re making and the artist you are.”
This insight didn’t come overnight for Zavros. Rather, it took him time to find his voice as an artist.
“For a time you become so hyper aware of everything that’s gone before you that you can’t put down a mark because you don’t know how you could ever contribute. But eventually you find your niche,” he says.
Zavros has carved out a strong place in the world of portraiture. In addition to the Doug Moran Prize, he has been a multiple finalist for the Archibald Prize and was commissioned by the Australian War Memorial in 2013 to paint two portraits of Victoria Cross winner Ben Roberts-Smith.
“When I make portraits, I feel I need to get to know the person,” he says. “We’ll talk for a while and I make mental notes about them and their physical character. Then I start taking photographs and do some drawings to begin to piece together this picture of the person.”
Zavros also painted Dame Quentin Bryce for the National Portrait Gallery in 2016, but more than prestigious commissions, it’s the work he makes for himself that he believes is his best.
“[Art] can only ever come from inside you. The things that were most important for me formatively were the things I wanted to make for me,” he says.
“It is the thing that comes from inside you that is authentic. I started making work that wasn’t for a commercial or critical audience, it was just stuff I wanted to make. That was the best work I was making, and has continued to be.”