Cover Story Preview: The Quiet Radicals

They turn odds into opportunities, trade dream jobs for financial risks and count their failures as blessings. T Australia celebrates the visionaries who’ve defied the doubters, starting with artist Vincent Fantauzzo.

Article by Jen Nurick

VFT Australia cover artist Vincent Fantauzzo.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a creative block. I just have limited time,” says Vincent Fantauzzo, the Melbourne-based artist renowned for his photorealist portraits of acclaimed Australians including Baz Luhrmann, Julia Gillard and the late Heath Ledger. He has won the Archibald Prize People’s Choice award four times and completed commissions for the National Portrait Gallery (including a painting of Hugh Jackman at the pandemic’s peak), accumulating accolades from which one may infer years of intensive study and art exposure.

Not so. Despite a difficult childhood — marred by countless house moves and dropping out of school at 13 — Fantauzzo is, refreshingly, disinterested in outrunning his past. Instead, he draws on it to launch himself forward, towards an endless horizon of shimmering ideas.

“Every morning I wake up exhausted from the epic film-length dreams I have every single night,” he says of the origins of his ideas. “I can see the camera angles. I can smell it; I can feel it.” The artist regularly finds himself enmeshed in storylines themed around his childhood, often punctuated by an altercation. Fantauzzo is one of five children and was raised mostly by his mother in the Melbourne suburbs of Broadmeadows and Glenroy, where he bounced between social housing properties before they were knocked down. As a teen, he worked as a concreter, an apprentice chef and a drycleaner, even founding his own business. At home, his mother gave him carte blanche to paint on the walls, ceilings and floors.

The visceral dreams Fantauzzo describes reflect the myriad ways in which his memory and creativity are affected by dyslexia — a diagnosis, received while he was at university, that has changed his life. He remembers being struck by a feeling of relief that he was not “stupid” as he’d always believed. After he failed to get into the Victorian College of the Arts, Fantauzzo lied about his high-school results in an application to RMIT, only to be later ousted for plagiarism. He eventually earned his master’s degree in fine arts and is now an adjunct professor at the university.

“I’d never read a book; I’d never done an assignment. I always thought, ‘I’m just not as smart as everyone else,’” he says. The dyslexia diagnosis liberated him, reframing a setback into a “superpower”. “What I didn’t realise at the time was how many great gifts come with being dyslexic,” he says. “There’s problem-solving, being very empathetic, thinking creatively.” Richard Branson and Steven Spielberg, two personalities who have been open about their own diagnosis, personified his potential and helped Fantauzzo navigate a rough path lined with noes. “I thought, ‘Well, if they can do it, I can do it, too,” he reflects. “I think that fits with not accepting that because of this difficulty I can’t achieve things on a high level.”

Quite the opposite. In painting his sitters, Fantauzzo has found a new way to learn and has forged intimate friendships in the process. “Art is a good equaliser,” he says. “It crosses all boundaries, all races, religions, nationalities, history. Art ties people together.” Don Bradman, Matt Moran and even his wife, the actress Asher Keddie, have been subjects in his work, but he is quick to acknowledge — and dismiss— any pushback he’s received due to their celebrity. Fantauzzo says he is invested in capturing a person’s charisma and establishing a connection he hopes will resonate with his audience as well. “I was constantly trying to absorb and find out what made these amazing, inspiring and successful people who they are,” he says.

Like his dreamscapes, Fantauzzo’s stories have a cinematic quality to them. There are his travels with Luhrmann: “We rode motorbikes through India — for four weeks we were just on the road,” he says, “learning from each other all the time.” And his time with Ledger, which included conversations — “about his life, where he was at the time, how he was feeling” — as well as private performances. During the sitting, the actor travelled through a series of emotions in real time: whispering, wailing, meditating and then laughing, finally breaking the fourth wall. “It defined the idea of making art and portraiture being a collaboration,” Fantauzzo says. “Watching someone and then trying to bring those emotions into a singular image.”

While Fantauzzo has translated his odds into advantages, he maintains that he also grappled with the elitism of “serious” artmaking when he was young and is conscious of others, especially youth, confining their talents to side-hustles or hobbies. “When it comes to being an artist [many assume] you’re going to have a life of sacrifice and poverty, and it puts a lot of ambitious young people off,” he says. Fantauzzo, who points to Moran and Jamie Oliver as influences, seeks to make his craft popular, bridging art and commerce. “We have to change the idea of art not being  able to provide people with success on all levels,” he says. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, he partnered with friends including the artist David Bromley to found Pirate Collective, which customises cars, motorcycles and clothes. “Not everyone spends a lot of money on a big painting; not everyone goes to galleries,” he says of his expansion beyond portraiture. With Pirate Collective, he says, “I can reel in an audience, expose them to art and maybe make them feel less like it’s them and us.”

Film and abstract art are Fantauzzo’s next frontiers, but first he is working on the launch of his namesake foundation for learning and literacy disorders, geared towards subsidised testing in schools. “There’s all sorts of reasons people don’t get tested,” he says, citing finances and filial expectations as examples. “I think if they can be assessed and they can find out what their difficulties are, they can also find out all the positive things.” Fantauzzo’s career offers a proof of concept, and he is candid about how art helped save his life. “I think for a young person, finding those things that give you self-confidence is really important, especially if you’re flailing somewhere else,” he says. Popularising art — a historically exclusive domain — and reclaiming challenges as gifts are lofty personal goals, but getting others on board? Fantauzzo admits it’s an ambitious plan, but says the answer is simple: “I like to think big. Never accept ‘no’.

This is a short extract from our newest issue.

To read the full story, pick up a copy of our new issue in newsagents nationally or subscribe to receive T Australia straight to your letterbox. You will find it on Page 56 of Issue #9, titled “The Quiet Radicals”.