Artists have varying degrees of success at different points in their lives. These moments when experienced can test you in many ways, which can both increase that achievement or dilute its effect on your career. It depends often on how you respond to the success that comes your way.

Do you respond to success or do you react to success? It is exceptionally easy to undermine anything, but undermining success can be the simplest thing to do. Most people crave for positive achievements and accolades as much as they fear it and it is in both the craving and the fearing of success that the problems germinate and the possibility of undermining your achievements of success begin.
One good example of how I was convinced I undermined myself fast on the heels of achieving significant success was when I won the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Known as Australia’s oldest award for landscape painting and sculpture, it is considered highly prestigious and usually sets up any artist for life after winning this accolade.
The following is a story about winning this prize – and how I stood up for my rights, whilst at the same time created a situation where I could have been (and was) full of doubt about my actions.
My gallery director at the time suggested the first time she met me, which was 6 months before the announcement of the Wynne Prize, that I should enter my work, she continued to do so on the many occasions that we met over the following few weeks, as we planned for an exhibition at her Sydney Gallery. I had been introduced to her by Kim MacKay, the co-founder, along with Australian of the Year – Ian Kiernan, of the Clean up Australia and the Clean up the World environmental organizations. I had met Kim in Washington the previous year when I had an exhibition and delivered a lecture at an environmental symposium at the Australian embassy in DC. In the days leading up to the announcement of the winners of the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes, the artists who were finalists were all invited to a luncheon at the Art Gallery, to meet and mingle.
On that day I discovered that there was an artwork hanging in the Wynne Prize that closely resembled my own particularly unique beach found plastic assemblage wall works, so similar that for a very brief moment I thought it was one of mine! Except the work that I had entered was a sculpture, which was also made from beach found objects – thongs. I was pretty shocked and made enquiries about who did the work and found out he was a guy I met at an exhibition of mine a year previously in Brisbane. When I first met this person a year earlier, he had come to me at my exhibition and introduced himself by asking me how I went about making my assemblage art works…
I was taken back by his line of questioning, particularly because it was so specifically oriented and said I that I usually didn’t give away my working methodology to anybody and why did he want to know these specific answers anyway? At the time he replied by saying “Don’t worry about me, I’m a brother of the brush.” By which, I insinuated that he was a painter and wasn’t about to go out and start copying or attempting to reproduce the kind of assemblage work that I had created. I believed him.
Little did I know at that time that a year later he would be reproducing works so remarkably similar to mine, not only with the way that composition and color were used, but also with the whole formatting of production being pretty much identical. The work that I saw hanging at the Art Gallery of New South Wales was just like this. I was disturbed.
The first thing I did was to mention it to an artist mate of mine who was a previous Archibald Prize winner and also a trustee of the Art Gallery of NSW. We accidentally bumped in to each other that day at the Gallery. I took him downstairs to the storeroom where there was an example of one of my wall works, which didn’t make it into one of the prizes that I had entered. I showed him the two styles of beach found plastic object assemblages, both my own work and this other guy’s work, and my artist mate was also pretty shocked.
He bought it to the attention of the director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, who also had a good look at the comparisons and said to me that there wasn’t much he could do except to contact the artist and see what he had to say.
The response from the other artist was that he was not at all influenced by my work and refuted my challenge that he had copied my work.
The next day at noon the announcement was made that I had won the winning prize, which was astounding for me and for all my friends who were there on the day. I remember the AGNSW gallery director coming up to me, while the media was interviewing me and whispering in my ear something, which equated to “John, the decision was instantly unanimous by all the Trustees… see, everything worked out in the long run”. I had to agree, I was on major high and could have left it at that, but I didn’t. I researched copyright law through the help of a professional arts lawyer and learnt some startling facts. The reality is that, according to copyright law, there needs to be a variation of only fifteen percent or more for their work not to infringe copyright. This means the law afforded my work no protection. There was nothing I could do – but I learned a valuable lesson: Be vigilant about your legal rights.
A further result of this incident was that I became a member of the Australian national Arts Law organization and I became a member of other national arts bodies – organizations that have served to give me invaluable advice on all aspects of my career over the years. As time went by, I got over this guy’s transgressions and developed an attitude that for someone to copy my work so blatantly was a form of flattery. Now many years later, having seen so much work that looks similar to mine I am genuinely quite happy about the fact, especially when I see that it was created by someone I gave advice to or mentored in some way, or by someone who clearly acknowledges having received inspiration and influence from seeing my work.
Did I undermine my success in winning the Prize by my quite public pursuit of this perceived copyright infringement? Yes and no.
By focusing on something other than my own success I diminished its power and its potential for elevating my career. On the other hand, I am extremely grateful for the lessons learned. Any lesson that helps you to let go of an ego construct, whatever it is, can only be positive.

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