PC Press and Essays
Profile of Jillian Ciemitis

Improvised Lines Article
Fiona Adolph | Winter 2008 Scoop InSite ed 17

Peteris Ciemitis always intended to pursue the Holy Grail of portraiture prizes, the Archibald. But even he seems surprised by the success that has quickly followed his first forays.

Mt Lawley artist Peteris Ciemitis’s ability to capture the attention of the art community after years of mostly anonymous toil can be put down to an epiphany.

The urban designer with Robertsday, who paints in his spare time, had for many years entered and won local art exhibitions, relegating to the professional backburner a long-held dream to enter the Archibald competition.

Considered the holy grail of portraiture, he says the thought of seriously pursuing his art and entering the competition had been at the back of his mind for much of his adult life.

Then, one day three years ago Peteris, now in his late 40s, decided it was “now or never”.

“It was life review time,” he recalls. “I realised there wasn’t enough time to muck about anymore. It was like a life or death decision. When you’re 25 you think you can go back to art when you get older but at my age there’s less time. I was wondering what if ... what if I gave my art the focus, where would it lead?”

Where indeed. Short-listed in the prestigious award two years running, he describes the experience of heading to the NSW Art Gallery for the event as “surreal”.

A sense of “blurred reality” hit in 2007 when his watercolour, Making Sense of Place #4, a portrait of academic George Sneddon (sp), had Sportsbet punters placing him in fourth in line to win.

After the winner was announced, he says he recalls the controversy that followed, with some critics describing the choice of John Beard’s painting of artist Janet Lawrence as too conservative.

A review in The Australian newspaper listed what the publication considered to be more worthy works, which included Peteris’s piece, described as one of the smallest in the show but with a “surprising, monumental effect and a burning intensity”.

And praise for his lineal improvised response, with its intense, cropped feel, rained down again this year, with The Australian critic Sebastian Smee describing his piece, Grabowsky, a portrait of Australian jazz great Paul Grabowsky, as one of this year’s “potential winners”.

The award, which attracted 700 applicants, was deservedly won by Del Katherine Barton’s vivid work You Are What is Beautiful About Me, while Peteris’s Grabowsky has gone on to become one of the competition’s iconic images for 2008, appearing in promotional material for street displays.

The piece forms part of the touring Archibald exhibition in Victoria and NSW but various developmental versions will be on show at Perth’s Gadfly Gallery in August as a part of a solo exhibition by the artist.

It is worth noting Peteris’s success in light of the relative dearth of West Australian achievement in this competition.

No resident sandgroper has won an Archibald and the last to be shortlisted was Peter Kendall, for his 2004 portrait of Peter Brock. Three others have been contenders since 2000.

So a placing twice running has been especially valuable, not the least because it confirms Peteris’s gift.

“It has provided a degree of value for the work I’ve been doing,” he says. “Its showed that it wasn’t just weekend dabbling – it legitimised what I was doing. But I have to confess I didn’t think I was going to get through. I don’t see the quality in my work that some other people see, so it was interesting to go over there and get the feedback.”

The son of Latvian refugees, one of whom had a talent for graphic art but gave it away when he started a family, Peteris says he has been passionate about art since childhood. Amazingly, he failed as a teenager to make the grade for entry into an art and design course at what was then the WA Institute of Technology.

“People see anything to do with art as being somehow easy to get into but you need talent, not just marks,” he recalls, adding that the course focussed on graphic art. Like his artist father who believed art could not sustain a family, Peteris believes many artists forsake their talents for practical reasons.

Organising an art show by town planners last year, he was amazed at the depth of fine-art talent that it exposed in the community. “But unfortunately art doesn’t yield a livelihood for most people,” he says.

Producing a body of work in time for the Gadfly Gallery show, he says he was drawn to create portraits of jazz and blues musicians because of the natural synergies between music and fine art.

“The space you have to occupy in order to create music and art, and to improvise, is the same,” he says. “You are trying to get into a zone and when you get there, there’s an emotional connection.”

Until quite recently, Peteris was happy with commissioned portraits, but that is beginning to wane.

“It doesn’t allow you to creatively move forward because you are restricted to a certain look that the sitter wants,” he says. But the musician subjects in his latest exhibition were all happy to give him a loose rein.

“They are all creative people and they say ‘you just take it wherever you want to’ and at the moment, it is a source of great satisfaction,” he says. “It’s an endlessly rich source of ideas and emotional engagement – of course, most portraits are really self portraits.”

Reproduced by permission