Striking self-portrait looks deep

A rare illness caused Dr Sarah Paton to paint a haunting self-portrait. The piece won her a commendation in The Lester Prize and has given her joy and confidence in a new sphere.

By Ara Jansen

Only weeks after her 95-year-old mother died, Dr Sarah Paton was rushed to hospital with a diagnosis of osteomyelitis at the base of her skull and upper cervical spine.

Sarah was treated with IV antibiotics at home after being discharged and spent three months recovering. Suffice to say she didn’t feel too flash. When she got home from hospital, she took a look at herself in the mirror – and found someone she almost didn’t recognise. She snapped a photo. 

“I looked at my eyes. It was haunting,” says the 64-year-old breast physician. “I’d seen that look on my patients, but I had never seen it on me. Then I thought I would paint it. I decided to do it in secret because I didn’t want to upset the family. Then Peter (her husband) discovered what I was doing and loved it even more than I did.”

It was only her second portrait, the first one had been of her dogs. Peter suggested she enter it in The Lester Prize, WA’s most prestigious annual art prize for portraiture. 

Choosing to create a painting wasn’t completely out of the blue as Sarah has been painting for a few years. What was unusual, was the choice of a self-portrait and it being so stark and harrowing, when you compare it to her other work, which is abstract (think Miro and Picasso style), brightly coloured and usually features breasts somewhere. 

One piece is titled Melittin, which is the main component in honeybee venom which is being explored in breast cancer research in WA. Her abstract works have been hung in various BreastScreen centres, but this is the first time she has had a piece hung in a gallery. 

She entered Memento mori in the Lester and received the Highly Commended Prize from a field of 40 finalists, chosen out of nearly 950 entries. The painting created a lot of talk, with people telling its creator that they understood exactly the way the woman was feeling. 

The painting features the subject standing in a grey bathroom, wearing a simple off-white top. It would also be possible to interpret the canvas as someone in a locked room, like in an asylum. 

While the eyes of the portrait immediately draw the viewer, the other striking element is Sarah’s hair. Though she didn’t lose any of it during her illness, it definitely became dry and coarse. While she exaggerated its spikiness, its texture remains a focal point of the piece. 

“I felt vulnerable with this one,” she says.

At the Lester exhibition, Sarah saw young people stand in front of the work and cry; they thanked her for painting it. “It’s so humbling that something I can create for myself has such powerful impact on other people. That’s the beauty of the Lester, it offers an opportunity to transform people. Plus, I’ve learnt so much about my painting from everyone else.

“The exposure from the exhibition has been extremely affirming. It has given me the confidence to call myself an artist and made me realise that I’m actually good enough. That seems crazy I know. I’m a positive person and I love what I do, and it’s so nice to still have firsts at this age. If I’m going to live as long as my mother, there’s so much to do!”

While she’s passionate about art, which remains a hobby, she’s also passionate about the work she does as a breast physician at Royal Perth Hospital and BreastScreen WA as well as doing one day a week at a skin practice. She’s on BreastScreen’s advisory board as well as teaching in her field.

Both Sarah’s parents were doctors so she grew up in a home where “medicine was the language”. She was a child who was always busy, always doing or making something. A love and appreciation for art also featured strongly, in particular, her great aunt Dorrit Black, a painter and printmaker who was a pioneer of modernism in Australia. 

Sarah’s father went to university in Adelaide, as Perth had yet to open a medical school, and returned to become the state’s first vascular surgeon. Her mother Nancy was an Adelaide local. After graduating as a doctor, Nancy married Sarah’s father and they returned to Perth. Sarah is the youngest of four daughters, her identical twin is three minutes older. 

“I just came out of the womb ready to go for it,” Sarah says of her interest in many things, including medicine, and maintains she has never needed a lot of sleep. When she was old enough, she would listen in on her father’s one-sided medical conversations on the phone. “I became familiar with the language of medicine at a young age.”   

Inspired by Nancy – the most important person in her life – Sarah speaks often of her brilliance and always being willing to try new or interesting things. 

“She was dux at medical school at a time when it was a difficult time for women in the profession. She went back to uni in her 50s and late 70s and studied philosophy and theology and with a little bit of encouragement from us, became an artist at 93. She has always been my inspiration. I feel like I have been able to do what she might have been able to do in another lifetime.”

Sarah says almost half her graduating class in medicine in the early 80s were women. Her mum was one of 12 in 1951.

The physician married “an ambitious man” – Professor Peter Leedman, director of the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research. They’ve been married 40 years and figured out a way to advance both their careers, raise three kids and manage that sometimes elusive work-life balance. 

Both studied medicine at UWA and worked their early years at Royal Perth Hospital. On moving to Melbourne, Sarah worked in general practice, paediatrics and went on to study dermatology. After finishing his PhD, Peter got a chance to do a post doctorate in Boston, where they spent three years.

Sarah continued her dermatology studies and in 2014 decided to upskill so she could work as a breast physician, and loves being able to operate from a holistic perspective, very clear that empathy and compassion can operate in the same space. She also studied creative writing in her 40s.

“I learnt from my mum that it was never too late. Being able to be in someone else’s shoes and have a depth of empathy grows with age and human experience. It’s such a privilege. I love coming in contact with people from all walks of life, which is a reason I love working in the public system.”

Sarah was on holiday down south when she suddenly had to be hospitalised. She said returning south months later triggered her. The feelings lasted about five minutes. While it wasn’t pleasant, she says it was a valuable experience.

“I work with a team where we are managing extremely emotional and difficult illnesses, so what I’ve been through was valuable, from that perspective, even if it was unpleasant.

“I love what I do. We have friends who have largely retired and prefer to travel around the world. I was raised in a family of academics. I look at my relatives and they always appeared to be young, I think because of their intellectual pursuits. That creates a vortex of energy which I think keeps you young, active and engaged.” 

Totally self-taught, Sarah’s recent art success has given her the confidence to consider an exhibition and maybe even an entry in the Archibald. It would be an opportunity to show off all the canvases she has stacked up at home. 

“Painting gives me a sense of freedom. Viewing art does that for me a lot too, as I am sure it does for a lot of people. This has given me the confidence to do some more serious portraits.”

Sarah loves to walk and this year, alongside Peter, participated in her 11th Cancer 200 – Ride for Research in October. This year the 200km cycling event raised more than $8.8 million for cancer research at Harry Perkins.

Comments from the Lester judges:

“Sarah Paton’s Memento mori is a raw self-assessment by the artist. Paton appears within the composition as a ghostly apparition, with the face rendered drained of emotion, and her body pulled forward by the intensity of the eyes – holding the viewer in engagement. The psychological intensity of the subject is underwritten by the spare brushwork, the bleak colour and the searing splashes of the lights in the background. One cannot help but empathise with the feeling conveyed by the work. The starkness of the clinical colours chosen contribute to this sense of emotional and psychological lethargy. Despite this, there is a feeling of humanity to the piece; you get the sense of a real person – and bear witness to their pain.”