‘Nothing like this has happened to me’: Artist’s shock at prize win

‘Nothing like this has happened to me’: Artist’s shock at prize win


One morning eight years ago, Jane Grealy was standing in her backyard looking vaguely over the fence into her neighbour’s lush garden, contemplating what the future might hold. She’d just recovered from a debilitating illness and knew she didn’t want to return to her job as an architectural illustrator.

“I thought ‘well, I’ll draw that,’” she says. “It’s a very complex garden. And that, I guess, was the start of it.”

Artist Jane Grealy with her winning work.Credit:Steven Siewert

Eight years and many, many drawings later, one of Grealy’s drawings of Maria’s garden has won the $30,000 acquisitive Dobell Prize for Drawing, presented by the National Art School.

When organisers called Grealy at her home in Brisbane to say she had taken out top spot in one of the nation’s most significant art prizes her response was one of disbelief.

“It’s so hard to comprehend because I know there are so many other good possible winners on the wall,” she said. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me, ever in my life before.”

For 30 years before that lightbulb moment in her back garden, Grealy worked as an architectural illustrator, producing extraordinarily detailed artist’s impressions for a range of clients.

And while she describes her “apprenticeship” as a great technical grounding, she always had a hankering to make her own work without being constrained by commercial considerations.

“When I was young I was told I could not be an artist, there was no art at my high school,” she said. “I became an architectural illustrator and while I was always working to other people’s specifications, I did my own arts apprenticeship, and in the end it gave me access to a life I’d always wanted as a practising artist.”

A wire-frame architectural drawing superimposed on the work hints at the garden’s likely future. Credit:

Her winning work, Maria’s Garden, Scheme C, which took three months to complete, is an homage to Brisbane’s disappearing back gardens, many of which are being swallowed up by new developments, extensions and swimming pools. The wire-frame architectural drawing superimposed on the garden in New Farm is a hint of its likely fate.

“Once she passes away, the land is so valuable that the garden will be gone in 10 minutes,” said Grealy. “It’s really a documentation of her garden and in it you can see the story of her life and that of many immigrants.”

In her artist’s statement, Grealy draws attention to the detail contained in the work and the meaning behind it.

“Maria’s philosophy, ‘waste not, want not,’ is in those details,” she wrote. “Maria has worked hard since she arrived here, a teenager from war-torn Italy. Through hard work and thrift, her garden supplied her family with food.”

Guest judge and NAS alumna Catherine O’Donnell, a Dobell finalist in 2021, said the judges’ decision was unanimous.

“Jane’s work is beautifully executed, very skilful but also expanding drawing to a different level with her layering of architectural elements,” she said. “We did look at lots of different works. The standard was very high, so it was tough decision but we came back to this one.

“It’s about so many things – the balance between nature and the built environment, about time passing, the past, present and future. The work looks outstanding in the gallery – it’s very well deserved.”

The biennial Dobell Prize for Drawing was established in 1993 and has been presented by the National Art School since 2019. In that year, photo-media artist Justine Varga was selected winner by judge Ben Quilty.

Multi-award-winning artist Euan Macleod won in 2021 with a pastel-on-paper work titled Borderlands.

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