Nurse-turned-artist Elizabeth Hunn distils passion for life on canvas


Elizabeth Hunn’s story is one of spirit … or perhaps spirits.

After more than 40 years of nursing, she took a chance — quitting to become a fulltime artist and distiller.

She tried to enrol in a landscape painting class when she was 50, but it was full.

“They suggested I do a portrait class instead so, from the very first class, I was so excited and I knew that this is what I wanted to do,” she said.

“So then I just practised and practised and practised.”

The distillery label features her artwork — an anatomically correct skeleton thanks to her years in nursing.

But their Kettering distillery was also the inspiration for her shot at the prestigious national portrait competition, the Archibald Prize.

“I love doing portraits because people’s faces are just so different,” she said.

“We’ve all got eyes, nose and a mouth but how they’re put together on your face and how your muscles move and show your character.

She then set about painting “lots of different people”.

Elizabeth took up painting later in life.(ABC News: Mitchell Woolnough)

“To paint someone in the Archibalds you have to do the painting from life and that means they need to sit for you,” she said.

“They have to be either a scientist, or a writer, or someone in the media, or something like that, and they have to be an Australian and I wanted to paint a Tasmanian.

“I spent a long time thinking about who I would paint and that wasn’t easy and then when we started the distillery I heard more and more about Bill Lark and I thought ‘he is the one!’

“He ticks all the boxes and he’s done incredible things for the whole distillery industry and he’s been so generous with all the people — I thought that’s why I wanted to paint him, because he is just so generous and kind.”

A letter and a knock on the door

Finding Bill Lark was the next mission.

“I knew he was a Tasmanian and, because this is Tasmania, I knew that one of my sister’s children had gone to school with his children and I looked him up in the phone book!

“My strategic-thinking husband said, ‘you can’t just go and knock on his door and say “can I paint you”, he’ll think you’re a nut job’.

“So I wrote a beautiful letter and did a small painting of a picture I got from the internet, wrapped it up in brown paper and string and knocked on his door.

A middle-aged woman and man sit on a barrel drinking whisky in front of a portrait of the man
Elizabeth sits in front of the portrait with Bill Lark, who lobbied to change the 1901 Distillation Act which banned small-scale distilling.(ABC News)

“He was really thrilled about the whole idea, so that was wonderful.”

“I painted a portrait of Bill … I’ve painted three actually: a practice one that I gave him and then another one I’ve got, and then a big one.

Creating the portrait for the Archibald took several months.

“And he’s enabled it to happen. He got the federal law changed so we could distil spirits.”

The next mission was entering the portrait in the Archibald Prize and making it stand out from the hundreds of others.

The idea for that was hatched over dinner with a group of friends.

“We were just tossing up what to do about a frame and one of our friends suggested, ‘could you make it out of barrel staves because then they’d smell of whisky too?'”

A woman works on a painting
Elizbeth says her Archibald dream is not over.(ABC News: Mitchell Woolnough)

Before it left Tasmania, the portrait was also given a special send-off.

“We had a non-religious blessing of the painting with Bill’s family and friends and our family and we poured a little bit of this amazing classic whisky on the frame so it was an olfactory experience as well as a visual experience,” she said.

“We took it into the backdoor of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and left it there [with all the other entries] for a few months.

“It didn’t get accepted but that was OK — there were 978 entries that year and they only choose 30 — but the whole journey was just so fantastic, I loved every bit of it.”

It may not have won the Archibald but it did take out The Royal Agricultural Society of Tasmania’s 2019 portrait prize.

Bill Lark has bought it and it hangs on the wall of his Hobart distillery.

Following her passion

A woman sits at a table holding a pen
Elizabeth and husband David now also run a distillery near Hobart.(ABC News: Mitchell Woolnough)

Elizabeth admits the decision to quit a safe, long-term career in nursing to follow her passion for art was not as easy as she makes it sound.

At the same time she was taking her risk, her husband was doing the same — turning his back on a career in communications to create a distillery.

“Because we’re not 45 with a mortgage anymore we could slowly stop being in other paid employment and these passions of ours have just grown and grown,” she said.

“David has used his super to fund the distillery, it’s at our home, we don’t have a lot of overheads with that. We grow all our own food pretty much so we live very cheaply.

A painting viewed over an artist's shoulder
After being a nurse for 40 years, Elizabeth was determined to follow her passion for painting.(ABC News: Mitchell Woolnough)

“Being a nurse for such a long time, you just see all these people that they retire and they don’t know what they’re doing, and then they get unwell and they die.

“So I was determined, as was David, that we wouldn’t be doing that and we’d take charge of our own life and do things that make us happy.”

But her dream of winning an Archibald is not over yet once she finds someone to sit for her.

“Absolutely, I will have another crack at the Archibald,” she said.

“I’d love to paint Lara [Giddings], our first female premier; I’d like to paint Alannah Hill, who I think is an amazing Tasmanian; Hannah Gadsby but she’s all over the world these days — I think she’s got an amazing face and a great story.

“But you have to have some connection with these people — you really just can’t knock on their door very easily, and they’re probably not in the phone book,” she laughed.

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