Vincent Fantauzzo might be the art world's most unlikely hero. He grew up drawing on the walls of his commission home in Melbourne's Broadmeadows, but a career as an artist was hardly thought to be a way to escape. The 40-year-old would go on to win Australia's most talked-about prize – the Archibald People's Choice Award – four times; the latest Art Series hotel named in his honour in Brisbane; his portrait of Julia Gillard hangs in Canberra; and he managed to woo Offspring actress Asher Keddie. Not bad for someone who dropped out of school at 13.
A battle with dyslexia saw him leave St Bernard's College in Essendon to pursue a dream of being a boxer. Mentor Jack Rennie trained Fantauzzo until the age of 19, when was forced to give it up due to a broken collarbone and damaged knees. "I thought martial arts would be my way out of poverty," says the paint-stained, softly-spoken Fantauzzo. He doesn't seem like a guy who was once possessed to swing punches. "Jack would always say to me, 'You have to fight your own fight. Not just in the ring, but in life,'" he says. "If you're up against a slugger and you try and slug it out, you will lose the fight."
Rennie encouraged Fantauzzo to draw the boxers around him when he wasn't training, and introduced him to Lionel Rose and Johnny Famechon, who became the subjects of his first paintings. "Rennie's words really changed things for me. If you're constantly trying to be something in life you are not, then the odds are against you ... I went for my strengths which was art and that was the decider."
A bohemian upbringing
Life was ever changing for young Fantauzzo. His mother Rosaline, a homeopath, migrated to Australia with her family and met Vincent's father, Claudio, at a migration camp. Their Irish and Italian paths crossed, and they moved to Birmingham, where Fantauzzo was born. The family eventually returned to Melbourne, and his parents split when he was 12. "My mum was the one who never really worried about money. She always said 'Do what makes you happy and follow your dreams.' She's a bit eccentric, a bit loose and the life of the party, but has a very high moral standard. We had a lot of freedom as kids, but her one rule was never to judge other people. If I did, I'd get my arse kicked."
Fantauzzo is the middle of five children – his brother Otis is a hairdresser, sister Rachel a triathlete, younger sister Maryanne is a builder, and younger brother Michael a photographer. "I remember putting a pair of scissors into the gear stick in the old Corolla to help get it started," he says. "We didn't have much money and mum raised us on her own. I couldn't imagine that now."
If you're constantly trying to be something in life you are not, then the odds are against you.Vincent Fantauzzo
Rosaline drove the extra mile in her Corolla so her son could attend a better school. "The ones near our house were pretty rough, and while the other kids got into smoking and drugs, I had sport which gave me strength to stay out of it," he reflects. "But my dyslexia wasn't understood so I opted to be the class clown and trouble maker instead."
Fantauzzo built a solid portfolio of his paintings to show the Victorian College of the Arts – but was rejected. He spent a year painting sports memorabilia to cover the rent and even tried his luck running a dry cleaning business, but would spend his days sketching customers instead. "Dry cleaning clearly didn't take off," he says. "But I was too scared to commit to being an artist. I didn't want a life of poverty and sacrifice ... I think that mentality is still out there. People believe if you become an artist you will be destitute," he says.
He was "overwhelmed" to finally get into RMIT, where he graduated with a Master of Fine Art in 2005, and still leases a studio from the university's Carlton campus.
Behind the canvas
Fantauzzo's phone beeps, and it's a text from Keddie checking that he made it to the interview on time. "Asher is an absolute planner and amazing at it," he says, smiling. "She is constantly sending me calendar reminders because while many guys are bad at remembering, I am the extreme end of that. I forget everything ... It's the same with my art – I find a lot of pressure to plan two years in advance, galleries are booked out years in advance. I just go with the flow."
Keddie and Fantauzzo met in 2012 and married a few years later. "We didn't hesitate," he recalls. "It was all or nothing. We are together a lot and we are on the same wavelength when it comes to raising children...Asher has one rule – no pretend guns or sword fighting in the house. I got sprung once when she returned home and found me and the boys playing outside doing what she said not to do." he laughs.
The couple live in seaside Elwood and sold their farm a few years ago. "I'm the one who got Asher on Instagram. She is very private and really doesn't like to share too much of herself."
They have a three-year-old son Valentino, and Luca, 8, from his relationship with ex-wife Michelle. "Michelle and I were young and didn't know what we were doing," he says. "We got overwhelmed and things didn't work out ... We were at war with each other and now realise how silly that was in hindsight."
The two are still good friends, and even holiday together. "I remember when I went through my parent's split as a kid, the worst thing would be not feeling confident to talk about your other parent, so we both encourage Luca to share and be close with both female figures," he adds.
"When I became a dad for the first time I was nervous wondering if I could fill those shoes as I didn't want to fail ... I'm very present and take an active interest in my kids. Asher and I just did an emotional coaching course about understanding your child and how to read their emotions."
The quiet achiever
Fantauzzo is anything but a show off, even though he counts some of Hollywood's biggest names as close friends. There's filmmaker Baz Luhrmann who he met in a Sydney bar, the late Heath Ledger who he met through his friend N'far from 1200 Techniques, and Jet's front man Nic Cester, who was recently over playing the piano.
"When I started painting popular people for the Archibald I felt really vulnerable. I asked myself 'Should I be doing this?' Some people thought I chose these people because of their amazing achievements and because they were popular. It was actually Baz [Luhrmann] who told me to stay true to myself and my art will find an audience. He said when you make art for the audience your work becomes transparent and people will see right through it. If you make art for yourself, it will shine."
The artist says his goal is to bridge the gap between are and the general public. "My big passion is to make art accessible in the same way chefs have done with cooking. You know if you ask the average person to name five artists they can't. But ask them to name five criminals, or five chefs, they can."
The 160-room Fantauzzo Art Series Hotel in Brisbane is under construction and due to open in 2019, with the artist's portraits hanging throughout. "What's most exciting about this hotel concept is that I get to expose my work as an artist and whether people like it or not, they are immersed in art and go on a journey," says Fantauzzo, who is also an ambassador for car brands Alfa Romeo and Zagame.
"The Art Series has been great in highlighting the work of older, blue chip artists like Charles Blackman and John Olsen, and even if you're familiar with their work, your stay at one of the hotels will certainly introduce you to it. For me, this project is great because it's a way to encourage others to choose the life of an artist. To be a living artist who can engage in the process and shine a light on it is certainly rewarding. If it can inspire a younger generation to pick up and paint then that's a good thing."