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Cathy Freeman
, 1999

by Kerrie Lester

oil on hand-stitched canvas (frame: 199.0 x 169.0 cm, support: 181.5 x 151.0 cm)

Cathy Freeman OAM (b.1973), athlete, was just sixteen when she became the first Aboriginal runner to win a Commonwealth gold medal. She won two more in 1994. The first Aboriginal track and field athlete to represent Australia at the Olympic Games, she won a silver medal in the 400m in Atlanta in 1996. She was ranked first in the world in her signature event, the 400m, in which she won back-to-back World Championships in 1997 and 1999, and, memorably, the Olympic gold medal in front of her home crowd in Sydney in 2000. She was the first person to be named both Young Australian of the Year (in 1990) and Australian of the Year (in 1998). Freeman retired from running in July 2003, still enjoying the immense popularity she earned during her exceptional career. The Catherine (now Cathy) Freeman Foundation was established in 2007 with the aim of enhancing opportunities for individuals living in disadvantaged Australian communities.

Cathy Freeman was amongst the first group of sitters proposed for commissioned works for the National Portrait Gallery. Once she had agreed to the idea of a portrait, Sydney-based artist Kerrie Lester was approached about the commission. By that time Lester was a popular, well known portraitist, her playful, textured, highly-coloured works appearing regularly in the Archibald and Portia Geach exhibitions of the late 1980s and the 1990s. In 1998 her wry Archibald entry Self-Portrait as a Bridesmaid won the $500 Packing Room Prize, selected by the team who receive, receipt and process works entered in the competition. The following January she signed the contract to paint Freeman, and worked on the portrait during breaks in the athlete's training schedule. The art historian Gavin Fry has suggested that 'the appeal of Kerrie Lester's work lies in the way it embodies both the serious and the whimsical, the fleeting and the solid, the wry smile with instant recognition of our own weaknesses and excesses.' The artist's style seems well suited to the happy and unpretentious personality of her powerful and pretty sitter here.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Commissioned with funds provided by L Gordon Darling AC CMG 1999
Accession number: 1999.15