Zion brushes up for fresh tilt at Archibald Prize

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Australia’s premier annual art competition, the $100,000 Archibald Prize, is back on after a delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and no-one could be happier than prolific northern NSW artist Zion Levy Stewart.

Zion, who has Down syndrome, submitted his entry well in time for the 14 August deadline. His mother, Christine Levy, says as soon she received notification from Art Gallery NSW towards the end of June “it’s been all systems go”.

“The tight deadline might be a problem for some artists but not for Zion,” Christine says. “As soon as he found out he started doing some initial sketches and he finished his portrait well before deadline.”

Zion's Archibald Prize entry

Zion, 41, is largely non-verbal but his vibrant art speaks volumes for his love of life and people. He entered the annual competition for the first time last year and, although he wasn’t selected among the finalists, his eye-catching portrait of Aboriginal elder, artist, musician and educator Walangari Karntawarra added to his growing reputation among local and overseas collectors.

This year he’ll be submitting a portrait of his mentor and friend Noel Hart, who is himself a gifted glass artist and abstract painter. Every Friday Noel comes to the house Zion shares with his mother in Mullumbimby to support him with his artistic endeavours, which include sketches and ceramics as well as painted canvases.

“We’re able to pay Noel for his time using Zion’s National Disability Insurance Scheme funding, which is fantastic given all the support he’s given Zion,” Christine says. “Zion and Noel have a great relationship and he’s really encouraged Zion to work from his interests.”

It was just before Zion arrived in Mullumbimby aged around 20 that his natural artistic talent was discovered, after a family friend suggested Zion should try to sketch him while they sat together one day. The result astonished everyone, and since then his creativity has literally poured out.

Zion has exhibited his distinctive naïve and colourful artwork in many group shows but in the past few years he’s started to hold solo shows. His work is held in private art collections in the US and the UK as well as here in Australia, where he has a solid following.

“He’s hardly noticed there’s been a lockdown because he spends every day painting and making ceramics at home in his studio,” Christine says. “He actually wouldn’t have noticed at all except that he missed his usual outside activities due to the restrictions on personal contact.”

With the lockdown easing across New South Wales, Zion is once more engaged in his normal program of activities and therapies, supported by local NDIS partner Social Futures.

Zion’s NDIS plan funds support seven days a week, both in-home and at service provider United Disability, as well as community engagement, exercise, speech therapy and participation in a local drama group. His art practice is also assisted by two other NDIS-funded carers, one of whom maintains his website and social media.

“The NDIS has been a blessing for Zion but my desire is for him to be recognised for his ability rather than his disability,” Christine says. “I also hope his success shows just what people with disabilities are capable of.”