This is it. (Portrait of Steve Peters – head of the Packing Room at Art Gallery of NSW)
Acrylic on linen
198.5 x 152.5cm

‘Steve, where have you been in my life?’

‘A lot of people come to see the Archibald because of Steve.’

‘The real Mr. Archibald.’

Steve Peters is a national art celebrity. During his 34 years working at the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), and as the judge of the Archibald Packing Room Prize, Steve has personally unpacked and processed around 50,000 paintings for the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes. More importantly, however, Steve is a down to earth and humble man.

Painting Steve for the Archibald Prize seemed like the natural response when I heard that he retired from the AGNSW in March 2017.

‘Now it’s time for you to paint him,’ my daughter responded enthusiastically, when I told her the news. ‘I don’t think I stand a chance,’ I said. ‘Every artist wants to paint him now.’ The thought, however, never left my mind.

Although I had heard a lot about Steve, I saw him in person for the first time in 2015, when I delivered my painting of former AGNSW director, Edmund Capon, to the gallery. Until then, in my mind, the packing room was a daunting place, and Steve was a myth. When I arrived, I didn’t have the courage to talk to him. But I caught a glimpse of him, and I was sure that he had many untold stories. I was curious to uncover them.

Two years later, on Sunday 26 March, I contacted a mutual friend of ours, Brett Cuthbertson, who also works at the gallery. I explained that while I wasn’t planning on painting anyone for the Archibald this year, I hoped to meet and talk with Steve. And, if Steve was interested, I would make an exception. Brett informed me that another artist was planning to paint Steve, but that he would ask Steve in any event. The following morning, Brett gave me Steve’s phone number. He said that I could call him – ‘No problem.’

Steve took my call and agreed to meet with me the next day at the AGNSW café.

I arrived at 10.30 am. To my surprise, I was confronted by the whole packing room crew, who were finishing off a meeting. I asked Steve if he remembered me. ‘I knew your work, but I now I know you,’ he said. His crew laughed and went back to work. Steve and I started talking.

He made two points: first, I was the second artist to paint him for the Archibald this year; and secondly, he would come to my studio and sit for me. I thanked him for the opportunity. However, I said, ‘the painting is not about me. It’s about you. Could you take me to where you belong in this place?’

Steve led me to the packing room. A courier, who had left the room, followed Steve back in and told Steve where he had put the delivery. Steve said, ‘Sorry, mate, I don’t work here anymore.’ The courier replied, ‘I know, but I still have to tell you.’

Steve showed me his everyday routine. I closely observed his every movement.

On Monday 3 April, I came back to the packing room to sketch Steve. We had a long and intimate conversation during the sitting. A few things I learned about Steve: he never raises his voice with his dog; he is identified as ‘the Gallery man’ at fish and chip shops (and on the streets of London); he arrives at work at 6.30 am everyday; he brought laughter to gallery directors and colleagues alike; and he was a golf tournament champion in his teens. It seemed fitting to depict a golf course outside the packing room, where Steve will likely be found enjoying his retirement.

‘What will you miss the most when you leave the gallery?’ I asked him. ‘The people’, he said. ‘I will miss them the most.’

I learned that on the day Steve retired, he prepared for each of his colleagues a small bag, containing a blue square of fabric cut from one of his everyday t-shirts and a roll of his favorite sweets: Mentos. ‘Life has to have a bit of laughter’, he said. It is for this reason that Steve’s Mentos are featured in the painting, in colour.

When Steve first told Michael Brand and John Wicks that he intended to retire, they told him that he couldn’t leave. ‘Yes, I can,’ he grinned. ‘I have 51 per cent of the say.’

‘I have always been curious as to how you pick the Packing Room Prize winner,’ I noted.

‘We look at the works together. The guys show me what they like. I always get Brett to see what he thinks. We talk.’

Although Steve has a large percentage of the vote, an element that the media emphasises, Steve focused on the collective effort. Steve sees himself as among his crew, not above them. This vision set the tone of the painting – the environment is as important as the subject. So, I kept coming back to visit the packing room. Brett, Peter, John, Al, Stuart, Jake, Julia, Nik and Charlotte shared stories about the packing room – from the Rugby League posters on the wall to celebrity messages on the air conditioner to Steve’s handwriting on the trolley in 1990.

Steve came to my studio to view the painting. His said, ‘Everything is right, except my hair. Where’s my black hair?!’

I hope that this portrait of Steve gives viewers a glimpse into who he is and his sincerity. The painting is titled, ‘This is it.’ It has two meanings. First, it captures Steve making a decision for the Packing Room Prize; pointing at the painting of choice, Steve says ‘This is it.’ Secondly, it refers to his retirement from the AGNSW. For Steve and the gallery, this is it. Or so it would appear at first blush.

While Steve has bid farewell to the AGNSW, he leaves behind a legacy of inseparable relationships between art and people, and between an art institution and the community. So, is this it?

2017 Salon des Refusés –The alternative Archibald and Wynne Prize selection
S.H. Ervin Gallery
29 July – 15 October
Watson Road
Observatory Hill (The Rocks)