Dee Smart on drawing James Packer, cancer and the morning she ‘lost her mind’. SMH 12/04/23

13 April 2023

James Packer did not want his portrait painted. He agreed to it as a favour to an old friend, actor-turned-artist Dee Smart, who, armed with her pencils, shadowed her busy, reluctant subject on his boat during the Red Sea International Film Festival late last year. “I just wandered around and drew him,” she says. “Any stolen moment.”

Those few days were enough for Smart. She knows Packer’s face well. They met on a blind date decades ago, and, while romance never kindled, friendship did. She married his close mate, Chris Hancock, and the couple lived with Packer and his first wife, Jodhi Meares, in the late 1990s. “I know what he’s thinking in those eyes all the time,” Smart says. “And also, we all know the Packer features. The beautiful lips, the hooded eyes.”

Still, she struggled to get the tone of the portrait right. For a while, her studio was crowded with discarded images of Packer. “It was quite spooky,” she says. Some were too sad. Some, too indifferent. Her final effort, the one she has entered in this year’s Archibald Prize, shows a proud, burdened man with a spark of defiance in his eyes. A man who, in his third act of life, has settled into himself, in all his complexity.

“[His face is] saying, ‘what do you want from me’?” Smart says. “It’s a full circle. ‘This is what I am. I’m not going to strive to be all these other things. Like it or lump it. This is me. I’m not perfect. I’m so far from perfect, and I’m OK with it’.”

Smart’s empathy for Packer is not just due to their friendship. She, too, understands what it’s like to suffer under the public eye, to be almost broken by the judgment of others, and to emerge from the wreckage stronger. She, too, is far from perfect.

In January last year, onlookers saw Smart screaming at, then hitting, her then 11-year-old son Johnny outside her inner-city studio. She was shouting, “look what you’ve f---ing done”. The incident was heavily publicised.

She knows her painting of one of Australia’s most famous men, entered into the country’s best-known portrait competition, will prompt questions about that moment of rage and shame. So she wants to explain how she “lost her mind” one summer morning, and what she has done to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Smart has three children with Hancock; Charlie, now 21, Zoe, now 18, and Johnny, 12, her youngest. When she gave up a successful acting career – involving stints on Home and Away and Water Rats – for motherhood, she found a new creative outlet in painting, something in which she’d always had interest, but never the patience to pursue. What began as a hobby while babies slept has become a passion; she has been an Archibald finalist twice, and has had work hung here and overseas.

But in late 2019, Smart’s life was put on hold when a large, cancerous tumour was discovered in her bladder. She underwent radiation and chemotherapy, which triggered early menopause. Around the same time, she and Hancock separated after two decades. Amid cancer treatment and pandemic restrictions, she had to rely on her art to support herself and her children.

Those years, she says, were horrific. “As anyone who has been going through divorce with children [knows], it’s brutal,” she says. “Being in the trenches, working out how to move forward ... it’s just heartbreaking.

“Physically, I’d just come out of a very nasty cancer. So I was still having treatments for that. After the chemo and everything and you kind of expect it to be ‘oh whoopee, you’re better, hooray’. And we’re actually not, you are a completely different thing. And things that you took for granted that you were strong at … all changed.”

That January morning, Smart was about to put the finishing touches on two commissioned paintings, which had taken weeks. She relied on the money to cover her rent and bills. Her ex-husband had asked her to look after her son at the last minute. She had the paintings with her, and was struggling with the sticky lock on her studio door, so she asked Johnny to hold her coffee. After opening it, she looked over and saw him pouring the coffee over the two artworks.

Dee Smart was a star of Australian television, appearing on Home and Away and (above) Water Rats.

“I lose my shit,” she says, of what happened next. “I’m the first to say I’m ashamed. I lost it. I just literally lost my mind. I’m just screaming. It wasn’t even [him]; I’m screaming at the world. I’m a good swearer. I’m slapping at his hands, slapping him away. I’m screaming, screaming, and then thinking, ‘I’ve got to get [the paintings] inside to pour water over them. We’ll try and get the coffee off.’ I’m still screaming.”

The screaming continued. Then inside, she calmed down. “I say [to her son], ‘I’m so, so sorry. This is not you. This is just the f---ing thing’. He’s like, ‘mum, it’s fine’.” But onlookers were concerned about Johnny’s welfare. The incident made the news. Smart felt like “the worst mother in the world. ‘I’m failing at all this, and I did do that. And I’m so ashamed’. No one was more upset about what I’d just done to my son in public than me”.

Smart’s two older daughters spoke up in her defence. “For 20 years, the amount of attentiveness, love and support our mum gives us constantly is beyond,” said Charlie. Zoe said her brother, who has ADHD, could be a handful. “I know that my mum regrets what happened deeply,” she said.

Many months of heartache followed. She stopped painting – her hands shook too much - and cancelled a show. She barely left her flat. “I honestly believed I was the worst person on the planet,” she says. “And the worst mother. All those 20-odd years of being a full-time mum … meant nothing because of what these [people] said I was.”

But she did begin seeing a psychologist, a decision that began the recalibration she needed. It helped her family. “It was a wake-up call to say, ‘let’s not do this, like this’,” Smart says. “I’ve learned that your family may change its logistics, but it’s not broken.” It also helped her understand that to look after others, she needed to look after herself. “[Now] I say, ‘you know what? I’m getting to the [limit] here. And I’m walking away. I’m not going to try and fix you all because I can’t. I will be there for you’. I slowly built myself back up.”

She learned to forgive herself, and that we all struggle. Perhaps if those onlookers had been mothers, she wonders, they might have helped rather than judged her.

Towards the end of last year, Smart felt life return in a gush. She painted madly for two months; her next show sold out, and she was selected as a finalist for the Moran prize. Late last year she flew to Saudi Arabia to join Packer, the reluctant subject who was fulfilling an old promise. She wanted to paint him because “no one has, and no one [else] would be able to. He’s got a great face, and I have the inside story and empathy for who he is. He was born into this stuff, and there’s a lot of pressure that … it’s easy to look over.”

Sitting on the boat, pencils in hand, Smart made suggestions for the portrait; perhaps an Arabian theme, given their surrounds. “Deesky,” Packer said, “I’ll just leave it to you.” In the end, she stripped him back to his essence; the face of a man, who, without the trappings of wealth and business, is as human and flawed as everyone else, including the artist herself. “I know I’m not perfect,” Smart says. “But I also know I’m spectacular.”

ByJordan Baker
Sydney Morning Herald


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