“I should have died a thousand times over” laughs award-winning artist Sophie Cape.
She is not joking.
A former elite athlete who was destined to represent Australia at the Olympic Games in two separate sports, Sophie Cape has overcome death-defying injuries and extreme physical and mental trauma to become one of Australia’s most celebrated young artists.
“My sporting injuries include a cracked skull, eight broken noses, two broken collarbones, a shattered shoulder-blade, four broken ribs, a broken wrist, thumb reconstructions, fractured fingers, fractured pelvis, fractured spine, two blown knees, spiral fracture of my tibia and fibular, skin grafts to repair them, broken ankles, fractured feet, several broken toes,” she told Australian Story.
“She’s a risk-taker and to be a great artist you have to be a risk-taker,” says art dealer Tim Olsen.
Sophie Cape has followed in the footsteps of both her grandmother, artist Gwenna Welch, and her highly acclaimed portrait artist mother, Ann Cape.
“Artists are born, not made,” says John Olsen, one of Australia’s greatest living artists. “She’s a voice that’s going to get bigger in Australian art.”
But for many years Sophie Cape had resisted becoming an artist, instead wanting to follow in the footsteps of her sports-loving father Bill Cape, a former RAAF fighter pilot turned Qantas captain, whom she idolised.
“He taught us pain is only weakness leaving the body, and second place is the first loser, and a bored person is a boring person,” she says.
Her brother Joel Cape says she was always driven:
“I don’t think she wants to be the best that she can be, I think she wants to be the best.”
Sophie Cape’s sporting ambitions – first as a downhill ski racer then as a track cyclist – came tumbling down after an extreme training regime while an athlete in the Australian Institute of Sport’s Track Cycling Talent Development Program, and subsequent “experimental” surgeries.
“I felt like a lab rat, a guinea pig,” she told Australian Story. “I call it body-doping…. Of course I was gonna try this… experimental surgery. I was in pain, and I wanted to go faster.”
Former AIS talent identification and development manager, Jason Gulbin, acknowledges to Australian Story that the Institute got it wrong:
“This sprint cycling project has become a very important case study about what not to do.”
When it became clear that the surgery had not succeeded, Sophie Cape’s sporting career was over and she fell into a deep black hole.
She has since turned her disappointment into challenging and confronting art.
In 2010, she was awarded the coveted John Olsen Prize for Figure Drawing while a student at the National Art School.
“My son and I ... saw Sophie’s work and were immediately astonished by the sophistication of it, the drive of it. Very ... very strong stuff,” John Olsen told Australian Story.
His son Tim Olsen offered the young graduate an exhibition. Sophie Cape now holds regular sell-out shows in his Sydney gallery. She has also won many other art prizes including the Portia Geach prize for a portrait of actor Dan Wyllie.
“She looked like the lead singer out of a rock band rather than a painter,” says Tim Olsen. “But… she had it.”
For Sophie Cape, her epiphany is clear:
“Art saved me.”