As he commences work on her portrait, Sydney artist and author Guy James Whitworth recalls the late, great poet and performer Candy Royalle.
Painting any portrait is hard. The way I see a sitter will be different from how other people may see that same person. There’s always someone who says ‘you didn’t get the nose right’ or some such thing.
For the past few years, I’ve been wanting to paint a posthumous portrait of my friend the poet Candy Royalle, but it’s always been a daunting task because she is adored and revered by many, and still has some very protective fans.
She was born in 1981 and was mostly Sydney-based in her adult life but had lived and travelled a lot overseas before her passing in 2018, after a defiant battle with cancer. She is survived by her utterly gorgeous parents Coco and John, and her cute as a button brother George.
I first met Candy around 2007 when she and her then partner Nicola Bailey returned from travels in Asia and Europe. They were friends with my partner Ryan, and he was so excited to see the two of them return to Sydney and couldn’t wait to introduce us all.
From our first meeting, I had a lot of respect for Candy. She was brave, passionate, generous with her talent and utterly inspiring. I sketched her a few times in her life, onstage and off. It is my portrait of her in profile that sits regally on the cover of her first CD.
For a long while, Candy was probably the most famous person I knew, certainly one of the most magnificent. She was one of those rare, incredibly strong, intense people, who could suddenly unleash the liveliest and most beautiful of smiles that could warm the coldest heart.
Still, she was fierce as all fuck when she wanted to be, such as when in 2015 we turned up at The Seymour Centre for the premiere of a film we were both in, A Queer Aesthetic, to find Mardi Gras hadn’t organised an MC or anyone to manage the Q&A after the film.
I literally saw her bellow through the backstage corridors until that situation changed. I was very pleased she was on my side of the fight that day. The film seems a tad dated now and I think she’d probably be slightly humbled by it, as I am. We were both such babies.
I was never a close friend, but I always got along with Candy, although she and I had heated discussions around certain topics, and without a doubt she was very much always ‘the top’ in our friendship.
Which I was mostly fine with – I’m versatile (and lazy) like that.
She enjoyed few things more than to tell me to check my privilege, which, like the best of us, I need to do from time to time.
She was one of those people it was always a good idea to listen to; she taught me much about the integrity and duty of being an artist. I didn’t always agree with her views, but I certainly knew that her views were informed and considered.
My political views usually ran alongside hers but didn’t always run as deep. I like the idea that my work might change the world, but she based her writing and performance on knowing hers should.
Personally and artistically, she made me feel answerable for my actions.
She once laughed at me for getting upset about being rejected from a bunch of art awards (it was something like seven or eight in a row) and she coldly stared me down and said I couldn’t begin to understand rejection until I had operated in this world as a woman of colour. I’ll never forget that.
When she initially received her cancer diagnosis, she ceremoniously cut off her signature dreadlocks.
Seeing Candy without the dreadlocks was a big shock. Candy and I chatted about how I could use my costume making skills to lessen the social anxiety she felt about that, and I ended up making her a headpiece, which she wore onstage until her hair grew back.
The headpiece I made was really a crown, which made perfect sense. She really was high priestess of the poetry scene anyway. I lost track of that crown after Candy’s passing, but I’d love to find it again so I could donate it to the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.
So last week, in my studio in Surry Hills I finally started the portrait. It’s every bit as daunting as I thought it might be. It’s sad she isn’t here to sit for me, argue with me and hold me accountable for my apathy in life as I paint.
As I try to capture her physical likeness, I’ll be wondering, if she were here, what she would question me on and demand I consider further. What would her current passions be? How would she (try to) lead me to be a better person?
She has a very public and considerable legacy – but the smaller more intimate one is that those who knew her in person, are forever better people for it.
Guy James Whitworth is a Sydney based artist and author. His book, Signs of a Struggle, is available from The Bookshop Darlinghurst and good bookshops everywhere. He can be followed on Instagram and Twitter.
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