Gretel Killeen

The Real Reason Why I Didn’t Win the Archibald

Despite applying paint to something and filling out the paperwork correctly, I didn’t win The Archibald Prize. And I think I know why.


It’s fashionable to believe in your dreams – but it’s uncool when they turn into nightmares. I realized this only this week when I didn’t win the coveted Archibald Prize – despite the fact I submitted my painting on time and filled out the paperwork correctly.

I didn’t even make the list of finalists! This surprised me, even though I have no artistic training, I use paints from a “two dollar shop” and my paintings have often received the comment, “Is it finished yet?”

But one of the reasons I took up painting is because I thought no one can tell good modern art from bad. Like a true artist, I’m absolutely outraged that it turns out they can.


My entry to The Archibald Prize (Author supplied)


I mean, I agree that the self-portrait I painted does look more like my daughter’s puppy than me, but my painting had a message! It literally had a message. It had writing on it! Throughout history, art has been the voice of societal rebellion, so, I thought, therefore, in this time of desperately needed disruption, that a message is exactly what The Archibald Prize needs. So committed was I that, if truth be told, I spent longer on the writing than the portrait – the legibility, the color, the distance between the words. And I did it all without using a ruler!

I wonder if my third-grade teacher was one of the Archibald judges. She was the reason why I didn’t pursue art as a career. I remember she asked us to draw a straight line without using implements and I drew a line that was so incredibly straight she gave me a detention “on suspicion of cheating with my lunch box lid.”

The last piece of art I created, prior to my current renaissance, was a witch hand puppet I made in 1969 using papier maché and an old purple tea towel (for the cape of course). I distinctly remember wearing the puppet on my hand as the entire Infants School gathered in the hall to watch one tiny black and white TV and witness man’s first landing on the moon.

So, why did I start to make art again? Well, for forty years I’ve been a professional writer and then bush fires came in 2019, and then COVID in 2020, and then I turned fifty-eight and I guess – with my mortality horizon coming into focus, and the entire world also foreseeably coming to an end – I realized I needed to find a faster way than writing to communicate my thoughts.

Hence, my Archibald painting, alas with some writing on it which I’ve since learned may well have been my downfall because “an image should speak for itself.” Apparently writing on a portrait is considered somewhat declasse! But who knew that (other than Van Gogh and Picasso and Frida Kahlo, et cetera)?

And besides, my friends loved my Archibald entry. Though one did ask, “Is this genre called naïve or ignorant?” and I think another who told me, “This painting is brilliant,” is really just willing to say whatever it takes in an effort to try to have sex with me.

I see now their responses may not have been as supportive as I imagined. But in my defense, I’ve never been good at reading people. I once went swimming in a pool with a man who paused to stare at me glassy-eyed, and I interpreted his expression as “being smitten” – when he was actually just doing a wee.

Nonetheless, it’s a pity I didn’t win The Archibald. I’d already spent my prize winnings and I’d also imagined my acceptance speech. My speech would have been brilliant. It would have focused on my painting’s message, but now no one will ever hear the message, because the inclusion of the message in the painting prevented me from winning The Archibald and giving the speech and therefore spreading the message. (OMG, no wonder artists suffer.)

Perhaps I should share my hypothetical speech with you now to alleviate my pain – because that’s what real artists do. (Please refer here to The Scream by Munch and that portrait of Leonardo da Vinci with one ear.)


It’s a pity I didn’t win The Archibald. I’d already spent my prize winnings and I’d also imagined my acceptance speech. My speech would have been brilliant.


Okay, well, my speech would have begun with a complete list of the people who’ve encouraged my talent (to be frank that list won’t be long). I would then praise my fellow artists and say that each is a very well deserved winner (though I won’t offer to share my cash prize with them). And after that, I would laud philanthropy in the hope that a rich person will become my benefactor.

And then I would adopt a somber tone, express my gratitude for the opportunity to share my message, point to my painting, and say:

“My painting is an interpretation of a smiling selfie shot posted on Instagram. The painting is called She, the hashtag is ‘happy day.’ The message is found in the comments I listed underneath the portrait – all comments that I’ve actually received over the years from strangers on social media: ‘Sorry but your hair looks terrible.’ ‘I cannot stand looking at you.’ ‘How about you resign your stupidity and die to make us happy.’ ‘Want to do something useful with your life? Train as a volunteer firefighter or put your head in a toilet.’ Women in the public eye receive messages like these every day, often the comments are far worse – often not even sent anonymously, sent by both men and women. The comments are frightening, threatening, and variously aimed at punishing, humiliating, intimidating, and suppressing. Messages like these are the suffocating gags, the bullets and the arrows that so many women striving to serve and succeed in life are struck by every day. I just wanted to share this with you. Thank you.”

And then I would raise my arm and clench my hand in a fist, ’cause I’ve always wanted to.

Having not won the Archibald I’ve done the next best thing and posted the painting on Instagram. All the comments so far have been strong and supportive. Except for one, sent by someone called Gary who wrote, “Killeen get married have some kids … oh that’s right you’re not strong enough.”

And even though it’s not a death or rape threat, I think I’ll hide this comment from my children because I’d prefer they have a #happyday.


P.S. – Congratulations to all the Archibald artists and finalists.


You can find more of Gretel’s work on her websiteInstagram, and Facebook.


Gretel Killeen

Gretel Killeen is the author of more than twenty books. At various times she hosts radio and television programs across the country, works as a journalist, stand-up comic and voice artist, and writes and directs feature films and documentaries.