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Going Archibald

Artist Sam Leach, winner of this year’s Archibald and Wynne prizes, has been named RMIT’s Alumnus of the Year for 2010, in recognition of his distinguished and colourful career.

Sam Leach

Job: Artist

Qualifications: Bachelor of Arts (Fine Art), First Class Honours, 2004, Masters of Art by Research, 2007

RMIT alumnus Sam Leach had only been working as a full-time artist for four years when he took out one of Australia’s most prestigious art awards, the 2010 Archibald Prize.


His portrait of comedian Tim Minchin won the $50,000 prize around the same time he also won the $25,000 Wynne Prize for his landscape painting, Proposal for landscaped cosmos. He had been a finalist in the Archibald Prize with four previous entries. It’s one of a string of awards for the RMIT fine arts graduate.

"I was really surprised … then happy, then shocked, then scared and then happy again. But, still surprised," Mr Leach said.

He was named RMIT’s Alumnus of the Year for 2010 at a special breakfast event at Storey Hall, after being selected from more than 240,000 RMIT graduates in more than 130 countries for the annual award that celebrates the outstanding work of RMIT graduates. 

Now the 2010 Archibald Prize winner's story has been captured in a short, 2-minute video on YouTube as part of RMIT’s 'Author of my own story' series. You can watch Sam’s story on YouTube here.

Sam Leach's winning portrait of Tim MinchinThe young artist
Mr Leach, who studied Fine Art at RMIT, was more interested in writing than art as a child.

"I wasn't in the ‘arty' group at school, but I did enjoy drawing and painting. I dropped art after year nine and that was motivated largely by the art teachers. I just didn't enjoy those classes."

He began a Bachelor of Economics in Adelaide before his artistic side won out. He enrolled in RMIT's Diploma of Art program in 2000.

Once he realised how much he enjoyed the degree, and how seriously he was beginning to take it, he soon transferred to the Fine Art degree program. "While the TAFE program was a fantastic foundation course for a painter, covering the technicalities of material, colour theory, composition and drawing, the degree course delved much deeper into the conceptual side of art production, which is exactly what I wanted then," Mr Leach said.

As a result, moving on to the Masters in Fine Arts in 2004 was an easy choice. "I found the study itself to be rewarding and really vital to my development as an artist," he says. While studying he worked at the Australian Tax Office, putting his earlier economics degree into use. “It helped pay the bills. Luckily the Tax Office was quite flexible for me and I was able to spend quite a lot of time focussing on my study and my art,” he said.

"In principle, while it's not essential for artists to study or to do postgraduate study, I think it is essential for artists who want to contribute to the ongoing discourse of contemporary art.

"And the direct relationship you have with your RMIT supervisor is of immense value." Mr Leach completed his Masters in 2009. 

Dividendgame by artist and RMIT alumnus Sam Leach

More awards

In 2004 and 2005, Mr Leach was shortlisted for the Siemens Art Prize. In 2006, he won the Metro5 Art Award. His winning entry Dividendgame features a dead partridge hanging over the sign of an elevator. "The painting references Dutch still life painting and is intimate in scale, encouraging a close encounter with the work. The invitation to interact on a human scale is the opposite of that in any normal corporate lift-well. The painting juxtaposes the two traditions, starkly exposing the spiritual vacuum of the corporation by introducing a vanitas symbol into an empty corporate space," explained Sam.

He also won the Siemens prize in 2007 soon after starting his Master of Art, in which his research focused on 17th century Dutch painting.

Mr Leach used the prize money to travel to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to see the works and speak to Pieter Roelofs, Curator of 17th century painting.

"The paintings I won prizes for this year, especially the Wynne landscape prize, were directly influenced by these experiences," he said.

"Being able to consult the number one expert in the field in the world on 17th century Dutch painting at that stage of my career was a massive gift. If I hadn't won the Siemens prize I would never have been able to make that trip."

"Those prizes seemed to generate enough of a following for me to drop any other work and dedicate myself completely to art," Mr Leach said. "And being an Archibald finalist for the first time in 2007 also gave me a significant boost, especially in Sydney."

"In 10 years time, if I'm still practising as an artist full time and finding it as enjoyable and exciting as I am now, I'll be very happy," he said.

Some of Sam’s major influences are also RMIT alumni — painters such as Tony Lloyd and Juan Ford. He is also very interested in the history of painting, particularly Dutch painters from the 17th century and the ideas of minimalism.

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