In the months leading up to her tragic passing last May, Perth fashion designer and icon, Ruth Tarvydas, commissioned artist, Steve Makse, to paint her portrait. The painting is now being shown at an exhibition of Black Swan portrait prize finalists titled Skin Deep at Kidogo Arthouse, Fremantle, until Thursday, January 8, with proceeds from print sales going to beyondblue. BOB GORDON speaks with Makse about the portrait and the person.
What was the lead-up to you doing the portrait of Ruth?
I’d never met Ruth until a mutual friend put us in contact in mid-2013. We met up at her studio soon after, but it wasn’t until several months later that we got around to doing the portrait sittings.
What was her brief to you about what she wanted?
Ruth had no brief – she graciously came to the project knowing that this time she was the subject. Ruth was really brave to give someone she barely knew complete creative control over her image. It was in our first meeting that I suggested the portrait be a semi-nude – and in true Tarvydas style she agreed straight away. The irony of it all was pretty clear; depicting Ruth bare and exposed, when it was her life’s work to clothe others.
During the sittings we did experiment with a few poses and props that she preferred, but Ruth never tried to influence the painting in any way other than her personal styling. It was so flattering that she trusted me from the start.
How many sittings and over how long did the portrait take to complete?
Ruth was a busy lady so we had two short sittings where I did some sketches. I also took a bunch of photos, which I used to finish the painting off after she tragically died in May, 2014. The first sitting was in January and the painting was completed some time in July.
Was she comfortable and at ease during the sittings?
Ruth was professional in all senses, so she was really easy to work with, even when the attention was turned on her. That was one of the things that I noticed about her straight away – that she seemed relaxed, instantly giving and unpretentious, which in turn made everyone around her comfortable. She just made me feel like an equal of sorts – which was inspiring and really generous of her.
There are many layers to the painting, but the ‘party’ is more in the background. What do you think Ruth wanted to evoke about herself?
This is a really tough question. Ruth was so open about much of her personal and financial life. Her huge business debt was public knowledge but everyone was so supportive of her it all seemed just like a hurdle that she’d get over because she was ‘Tarvydas’. It was like she had already laid herself bare in so many ways in various media, that posing nude was really not a big deal for her.
In hindsight, we did have some pretty intense conversations during the sittings that hinted at a deep sense of vulnerability and existential questioning. We were both experiencing the loss of loved ones at the time and reflecting on our own purpose and direction as artists and designers. Maybe she was just trying to be honest – simply a human being like the rest of us. Maybe she just wanted to be normal… tired of being Tarvydas? Who knows? She obviously didn’t reveal all of her true self to anyone, because no-one could predict what happened that night in May.
What was she like during the last sitting, was she pleased with how it was going?
Several months passed between the last sitting and when she died. The last time I saw her I basically said, ‘I’ll see you in a few months when the painting is finished’. She never saw the painting at all. That made me pretty sad as maybe it could have helped her to see how strong she was in everyone else’s’ eyes?
How did you react when you heard the news about her tragic passing?
Like everyone, I was obviously devastated and shocked that it happened the way it did. Trying to imagine how she felt in the last moments, what was going through her mind at the time. She had so many friends, but in the end, was all alone.
It’s been a sensitive topic, but what do you hope is the future for this portrait?
To be honest, it took me a while to know what to do with the painting. I know her family weren’t keen on it going public, but ultimately the portrait was between Ruth and I, and I know she wanted it done and to be seen. She could have asked me to not go ahead with it at any time, but didn’t. A couple of her close friends have seen the painting and really liked it and thought it captured her well. That was reassuring and gave me the confidence to exhibit it at some stage. It wasn’t intentional, but I hope the portrait remains as a tribute to the bold and wildly creative woman that she was.
I also don’t believe the circumstances of her death should cloud our memory of her. Hopefully the painting does Ruth justice and honours her in some small way.
I hope to bring something positive from it all by donating part-proceeds of the sale of prints and of the original painting to mental health awareness charity beyondblue. If people want to buy a print of ‘Ruth’ and support beyondblue in the process, they can do it through my website: stevenmakse.com