Rotorua artist and former Helium Gallery owner Sarah Ziessen said she would have prepared a speech had she any inkling her name would be announced as the 2018 National Contemporary Art Award winner.
The invite-only awards ceremony and exhibition was held at Waikato Museum Te Whare Toanga o Waikato on Friday night, an event Ziessen said she was stoked to be at.
"I've entered this [National Contemporary Art Award] a few times, it's a really hard one to get into, but have not been chosen to exhibit. So just being part of Friday evening's select crowd was exciting."
She said she was "totally not expecting to be announced as the winner".
"The awards are very contemporary, almost avant garde, which isn't really my work," Ziessen said. "But I'm pretty stoked the judge liked my entry."
Her entry, titled You and Me, The Weight of History, came about as a result of late night procrastination.
"I was thinking about race and culture and how we define ourselves because, at the end of the day, we're all just flesh and bone."
The work took paint and turned it into a sculptural form, creating jackets out of paint skins. When asked to describe what a paint skin was, Ziessen referred to the "skin" of paint that often ends up on top of a paint bucket.
"We often judge each other by the colour of our skin, and clothes are like a second skin – the work is complicated with many facets."
Award judge Rueben Friend, director of Porirua's Pataka Art and Museum, said he selected Ziessen's work for its "great technical skill and a deep knowledge of Aotearoa New Zealand art history".
"Crossing media from painting to sculpture and adornment, the artwork also crossed lines of history and art practice, referencing the influence of international pop and optical artists such as Bridget Riley, as well as Maori artistic customs and practices of using a kowhaiwhai as a semiotic and architectural function, creating a work that speaks to the dynamics of art making in Aotearoa New Zealand and the plethora of influences that affect our art traditions and identity."
Ziessen said the award accolades would be far-reaching and the $20,000 prize money will make her transition to fulltime artist "a zillion" times easier.
"I started Helium thinking I would be able to keep producing my own work but it just wasn't possible, the gallery was a fulltime job. I have no desire to go back into retail."
And considering the opportunity to be a fulltime artist was what lured Ziessen to New Zealand in the first place, it was time to make that happen, she said.
"I'd seen Lord of the Rings – that's how I found out about New Zealand – and, at the time, the pound was really strong against the NZ dollar. I came over, bought myself a van and lived in it for a year while I painted."
She met her husband while rafting in Rotorua and the rest, as they say, is history.
Ziessen said she was not sure "where to now" after the recent win but knew it had to be good.
"I'm considering a fashion collection in paint skins. I need to find out if the garments would be wearable and whether they would be able to be walked down a catwalk," Ziessen said.