Three years ago, university dropout CJ Hendry was earning $45,000 a year working at a high-end retail store in Brisbane.
These days, just one of her hyperreal drawings can make more money than that, and there is no shortage of punters who want to own one, often paying tens of thousands for a piece they haven't even seen.
The detail is so incredible; they look like a black and white photograph.Bill Tikos
One Macquarie Bank executive recently paid $50,000 for a drawing of a crumpled Gucci shopping bag. Other well-known owners of a CJ Hendry piece include Kanye West (who purchased a picture of a $100 bill with his face on it), Vera Wang and actor David Caruso.
Hendry's meteoric rise has been carefully nurtured by Bill Tikos, the founder of the popular design blog The Cool Hunter. Tikos discovered Hendry's work on Instagram where she already had 10,000 followers (she now has almost 200,000).
His initial response was that he couldn't believe the works were drawings. "That's the reaction I get from everyone when they first see CJ's pieces," he says. "The detail is so incredible; they look like a black and white photograph."
Tikos invited Hendry to include some of her works in his Art Hunter show in Sydney last year. Two weeks prior to the event he put them up on Instagram and received more than 100 emails in the first 24 hours. "Every one of her pieces sold before the show; even the established artists we were showing didn't get that response," he says.
Tikos says men account for around 60 per cent of sales. Many are attracted to the masculine images she produces: Boxing gloves, Adidas trainers, cricket balls, a Gucci loafer, and an enormous bottle of Penfolds Grange.
Join the queue
According to Tikos, world champion boxer Floyd Mayweather and Alicia Key's husband Swizz Beatz were both vying for the image of the boxing gloves, only to discover it was already sold.
He says part of the attraction is the aspirational subject matter itself, combined with a very simple black and white aesthetic. Currently there is a waiting list of 1500 people wanting to snap up the next piece.
Hendry herself is quick to point out that her meteoric rise hasn't been an accident. "I've worked for up to 15 hours a day, every day, for almost three years trying to get this off the ground," she says. "I want it really badly."
The real deal
Although born in South Africa, Hendry has spent most of her life in Brisbane. It was in her early teens that she discovered a talent for drawing in a hyper-realistic way, and was often enlisted by friends and family to create portraits of people and their pets.
On dropping out of university, Hendry took a job in a Chanel boutique, but felt unfulfilled.
"I was a really angry, frustrated individual," she says. "I was pissed off with everything. I thought 'this is not how I want to live my life; this is the one time in my life I can give something a go'. I thought 'f--k the money; I just want to do something I like'. So I started drawing again."
She sold her entire wardrobe of designer clothes on eBay to fund the next six months. It gave her enough money to buy pens and paper and pay the bills.
Her big break came when an Australian art collector saw one of her images on Instagram. It was a drawing of an old pair of RM Williams boots. When he asked Hendry what she wanted for the piece, she pulled a figure - $10,000 – out of her head and sold it. That picture is now worth closer to $30,000.
Pen to plate
Hendry's workload is enormous. One of her large pieces, such as the designer shopping bags, takes about three weeks to draw, working every day under daylight LEDs. Her current project; 50 Foods in 50 Days (a series of images of Hermes plates with various foods on them) is seeing her have to produce one image a day. "I'm going to have a big break after this," she says.
Remarkably, 48 of the 50 (75cmx75cm) drawings have already sold, fetching $8800 apiece.
"I think people give me too much credit," she says. "I'm not actually that creative. I copy a photograph and I'm very methodical about it.
Fairfax art critic John McDonald sees Hendry's work as "surrogate shopping".
"Not only are the works themselves expensive commodities, it allows the people who buy them to celebrate the other expensive commodities they have in their wardrobes," he says. "But in many ways she's a more traditional artist than a lot of others because she actually draws; she doesn't get people to make stuff for her in a factory - you've gotta give her points for that."