Craig Ruddy, Archibald prize-winning painter, dies at 53 from Covid complications

<span>Photograph: Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

The Archibald prize-winning Australian artist Craig Ruddy has died aged 53 as a result of Covid complications.

Ruddy, who was based in the New South Wales northern rivers region, won Australia’s most celebrated portrait prize in 2004 for his painting of David Gulpilil, titled Two Worlds. He also won the Archibald people’s choice prize that year, and again in 2010, for his portrait of Warwick Thornton. He was an Archibald finalist in 2011 and 2020, for his portraits of Cathy Freeman and Bruce Pascoe, respectively.

Ruddy’s death on Tuesday night was announced on social media on Wednesday in a post that also paid tribute to his partner of two decades, Roberto Meza Mont.

“It is with the heaviest of tender hearts we let you know that last night Craig left his body peacefully at home in Roberto’s arms,” the post on Ruddy’s accounts said. “We have lost the most divine human that gave so much to our communities, the creativity, the inspiration, the pure love and plenty of dance.”

Craig Ruddy with his partner Roberto Meza Mont
Craig Ruddy with his partner Roberto Meza Mont. Photograph: Facebook

In a recent profile in the Northern Rivers Review, the pair were described as a “powerhouse couple”, renowned in the region for their community input. In the piece, Ruddy spoke of the rare lung condition he was diagnosed with as a child. “It slowed me down and put me into a strange euphoric state,” he said. “As a result, I learned to sit and observe.”

Ruddy’s 2004 Archibald-winning Gulpilil portrait made headlines when another artist, Tony Johansen, took legal action against the Art Gallery of NSW, which administers the prize. Johansen’s claim, which was dismissed by the NSW supreme court, was that Ruddy used mostly charcoal for the work, making it a drawing, not a painting.

Ruddy was devastated by the death of Gulpilil just over a month ago. The artist and the Yolŋu actor developed a strong bond in 2004 when Ruddy drew him for Two Worlds. Ruddy drew Gulpilil at the Colo River while the actor took a break from rehearsals for his one-man show, directed by Neil Armfield. Ruddy only had a couple of hours to create the portrait, which he drew on colonial wallpaper.

After Gulpilil’s death from lung cancer in November last year, Ruddy posted a picture to social media of him creating the portrait, writing: “This is how I’ll always remember you, strong, resilient and cheeky. My heart is heavy knowing you’ve left this world but your legendary spirit will live on forever.”

The last time Ruddy painted Gulpilil was in 2019, the day after the opening of Molly Reynolds’ documentary My Name is Gulpilil. Last month the portrait, I’m Gulpilil, was displayed at the David Roche Foundation in Adelaide.

In December, Ruddy completed his last body of work, titled 2021, which Daniel Browning, host of Radio National’s The Art Show, said “puts me in mind of the dystopias conjured by the Spanish painter Goya”.

Created in the studio adjoining his home in the Byron Bay hinterland, Ruddy said of the works: “These past two years have been a rollercoaster of emotions and feelings for all of us, including myself … Creating in my studio has helped me to maintain balance and perspective. We are definitely living in unprecedented times and the arts and deep human connection are paramount.”

Related: My Name Is Gulpilil review – sublime, humane, elegant traversal of Indigenous actor's life in film

Ruddy was born in Forestville, Sydney in 1968 and studied design and fashion illustration in the 1980s. In 2001 he quit his design career to become a painter, and over the past two decades divided his time between homes in Tamarama in Sydney’s east, the Byron Bay hinterland and Buenos Aires.

On his website, his work is described as exploring “questions of social conscience as well as current environmental issues. The recognition of Australian Indigenous people and culture is also a core theme.”

When he wasn’t in his studio painting or travelling with his partner, he enjoyed invigorating cold outdoor baths, yoga, dancing, tending to his veggie patch, surfing, cooking and entertaining.

Byron Shire Council mayor Michael Lyon said Ruddy was a “well-known locally based artist and Archibald prize-winner” who had “died as a result of complications from Covid-19”.

“Devastated at the loss of my good friend and neighbour. Too young to leave us and such a beautiful, kind and generous soul, am still in complete shock,” Lyon said in a statement.