"Urgent. Need to talk to you about the Archibald Prize."
A text message from my old friend Jenny Blake arrives inconveniently at 8.30am on a Monday (school drop-off time). Having previously worked for the National Gallery of Australia, I assume Jenny's doing some freelance work for the Art Gallery of NSW and wants to pitch me a story.
"I want to paint you," she says, breathless, when I call back. "It's hit me like a tonne of bricks. I have to paint you."
Now that she's retired from public relations and her five children are adults, Jenny spends a lot of her time painting. She gifted Canberra icon Stasia Dabrowski a self-portrait last year and exhibits regularly at M16 Artspace. She's fairly new to portraiture but wants to give herself the ultimate challenge of entering the prestigious Archibald Prize in 2018.
"Really? No! Really? What? Why? Really? But me? Really?" It's a deep honour that makes my voice wobble and my colleagues look over curiously as I get a little teary on the phone.
"Your messages around body positivity and mental health and your role as a leading storyteller make you inspirational. You're perfect."
Jenny's keen to start immediately and agrees to meet me at The Canberra Times in Fyshwick for a quick meeting to outline the process. Jenny forgets her mobile phone and somehow ends up in the print area of the Times building.
Our first session is not the quick meeting she promised me. It's a flow of verbs describing how I'd like to see the end product - "real", "energetic" "fearless" and then I'm suddenly posing. "Show me attitude! Pout your lips! Now do your excited face!" she yells at me over the roar of the printing press as confused print hands watch the action.
The next two posing sessions are much more relaxed (and quiet). I sit at Jenny's dining table in a bikini while she stares intently at my eyes for like 18 hours (okay maybe 30 minutes) and my entire face. Having someone stare intently at you for a length of time is hugely disconcerting and uncomfortable. My emotions range from embarrassment and frustration to confusion. My anxiety is in its element: "Why is she painting you? You're ugly. Why does she keep saying your eyes are beautiful? They're not." Sitting for a portrait is the ultimate in vulnerability.
Jenny's decided she loves my "super excited" expression - "it's just so you" - so I have to sit pulling that face like an idiot, all the while praying Jenny's husband doesn't barge in the front door and die of shock at my "six year old on Christmas morning" face. Jenny decides to paint in watercolour and isn't interested in making the portrait look like a photograph. "I want people to see the brush strokes, the authenticity that this was made by a human."
Then the painter paints. Over the weeks while she's working I get random text updates - "your hair isn't doing what I want it to", "haven't quite done the teeth" and "tired today, up till 3am last night". Jenny says when she paints, she's in "deep flow" which only ends when she can no longer ignore the rumble of her stomach or a quick glance at the clock tells her she's three hours deep into a new day.
And I reply to her texts: "God, you'll never want to catch up with me again after this, you'll be so sick of looking at my face."
When I finally get to see my finished portrait, I'm in shock. It's incredible. And so me.
"You've managed to make me look so beautiful."
"You are beautiful."
I see myself in a way I've never seen myself before. I suddenly see how other people view me and in short, it's transcendent. I love her (me) and I want to get down on my knees and beg her forgiveness for how mean I am to her on a daily basis.
Jenny watches me intently as I look at her hours of work. I can see she desperately wants me to like it. I not only like it, I adore it.
She's given the title 'Front Page' (a nod to my role as a journalist) and is to be judged for the Archibald Prize against 800 entries in early May. She'll then take pride of place on my lounge room wall; a constant reminder of how energetically beautiful I truly am. It's the best gift I've ever been given.
The verdict: In a world where we control so much of how others sees us - a Sierra filter here, an iPhone held high to make the face appear thinner there - handing our image over to another for interpretation is scary. It was a true lesson in vulnerability and a deep honour. Highly recommend.