The modest shed in the garden of the Beard family home on the Gower coast in Wales has had a makeover.
It used to be a kind of landfill.
“There was an old rolled up carpet, bits of driftwood, parts of an old boat,” says 14-year-old Makenzy, the youngest daughter of the house.
“It was dark, dusty, no electricity or anything, so when I was working here in the winter I had to use the light from my cell phone.”
No longer! The place has been cleaned up, the rubbish thrown out and the walls painted.
There is also light at the push of a button. “Daddy turned on the light for me,” Makenzy beams. Papa David, 55, grimaces.
“In guilt,” he confesses. “We did set up a heater when she was there. It was a bit of Heath Robinson. I’m sorry she did all that in the dark.’
It’s quite remarkable. By ‘all that’ he means making a painting that the art world is talking about.
Out of the darkness of this dilapidated barn emerged a portrait that is now on display at the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly in London.
Makenzy Beard, 14, (pictured) has a portrait now on display at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly after taking up painting during lockdown
‘We dusted the canvas well, because it had been on the floor for a while,’ confesses Makenzy.
It’s a confession that makes art appraisers shudder. So does her confession about where this masterpiece was painted.
“Usually on my knees or on the floor,” she nods. ‘Because there was a donkey in the shed, but the canvas was the wrong size for it’.
Her choice of subject, Farmer John Tucker, is fascinating. Not many 14-year-olds would choose a ruddy-faced farmer to paint.
She laughs at the idea that she could have painted a beautiful friend in a floral dress.
‘I wasn’t interested. John has a great face. It’s very nice, just like him, and it has character.
“It was actually my mother’s idea that I should ask him. One day she drove past him in the field and the light was great, so we went to ask him if I could take a picture of him and paint him.’
What did John think of the resulting hoopla? Well, he was clearly flattered by the portrait, ‘although he said he looked too shabby. If he had known more, he would have put on a shirt and tie and shaved. But that would have missed the point.’
The stunning portrait of Makenzy’s farm neighbor John Tucker, who defeated 32,000 others to eventually hang from the Royal Academy of Arts
She’s still not sure if John fully understands how many people have seen his likeness. “Mom did text him to let him know when it all went viral, but he doesn’t like social media, so I’m not sure he gets it.”
The portrait is certainly an amazing piece of work done by any young person, let alone a 9th grade student.
It shows John in work clothes, his fluorescent jacket appearing to glow off the canvas.
Some online critics have praised the likeness as “as good as a photograph,” but, as is always the case with a compelling portrait, the image’s power goes far beyond mere resemblance.
The use of light is exquisite, capturing movement and emotion. It has a soul, somehow. “She captured the essence of the man,” admits her father, who struggles to articulate why the portrait just works.
The Beards always knew they had a talented (and driven) daughter. Like her big sister Leni, 15, Makenzy plays hockey for Wales and trains with her soccer team four times a week. Both girls also play netball and are certified lifeguards.
However, during the pandemic, they found themselves in the rare position of having time to spare and – in true lockdown tradition – Makenzy decided to try out a new hobby: painting.
She literally dusted off some old acrylic paint and an easel from her mother that had been in the shed, and started mixing colors on an old ceramic plate. “I still don’t have a real artist palette,” she says.
“And I’ve had to cut up old brushes because I didn’t have the fine brushes I needed.”
Although she had loved “drawing and scribbling” during drawing classes at school and plans to study art at GCSE level, Makenzy had never tried portrait painting. When she did – she started copying a few photos she found on Pinterest and then attempted a likeness of her farm neighbor – her parents were stunned.
So did her art teacher, who entered Makenzy’s peasant portrait for the Royal Academy’s Young Artists’ Summer Show, a national competition open to amateur artists between the ages of five and 19.
When it was selected for exhibition – one of 32,000 pieces submitted – her school proudly tweeted her work. This, in turn, went viral, leading to suggestions that Makenzy is the latest of our old masters, a Picasso-in-waiting.
The family has since been inundated with offers to buy the painting, no doubt some from collectors hoping it will one day be worth millions. But Makenzy is adamant she won’t sell.
One of Makenzy’s many incredible works featuring a bearded man smoking a cigarette while putting on a cap
“Although my sister, Leni, who seems to be acting as my agent, says ‘let’s not be in a hurry’.”
Her family – mother Hannah, who trained as an interior designer and father David, a professor of musculoskeletal and surgical science at Oxford University – has now traveled to London to see her work in situ. It wasn’t just the first time Makenzy got to see her own work. Amazingly, it was also the first time she set foot in an art gallery. “I had never been there,” she admits.
“My mother was supposed to take me to the Tate in London last year, but then the lockdown happened.”
‘For starters, we live in sticks,’ emphasizes Hannah, 48. ‘Besides, I think galleries can be quite sterile.
“As a family, we’ve traveled a lot – the girls were used to backpacking with us in places like Cambodia – so I think that’s where Makenzy learned about color and movement. And people, crucial.’
One thing is certain: Makenzy is one to watch. It’s too early to say if she’ll have a career as an artist (she’s not even sure she wants to become one yet), but even off the canvas she shows a maturity that’s unusual for her age.
There is also a determination. She spent some 20 hours, spread over three weeks, on the portrait of John, getting up early to work on the minute details before “running to the school bus.”
‘When I do something, I give it 100 percent,’ she says.
Several pieces by Makenzy feature elderly men from her hometown in Oxwich, near Swansea Swan
Is there anything she’s not good at? She points out that she cannot sing and that she is ‘only’ in group 5 on her clarinet. As it turns out, she pretty much did everything else early and at breakneck speed. Her parents reveal that she was born three months premature, and it took a while to see if she would survive.
“She weighed 2 pounds and we just didn’t know if she would make it,” Hannah says. Even more amazing is that Makenzy has poor eyesight, which wasn’t picked up until elementary school.
At first no one thought too much about it when Makenzy, in lockdown, asked if she could use her mother’s old paint.
Her first attempt at a portrait was that of a little black girl she picked from the internet.
She is incredibly blasé about how organic the process was, describing how she simply experimented with acrylics on the canvas and worked out herself how to get the required effect.
‘I already knew something about perspective. I think I’ve always known that. And at school we had learned about depth and colour.’
She was consumed by her newfound passion, staying late in the shed and getting up early to work on her painting for school. “Some details, especially on the jacket zipper, took hours.”
During the lockdown, many people sought comfort in these kinds of hobbies. “Yes,” she says. “But I didn’t see it as an escape, but as an opportunity to have fun with it. I found it tiring. After each session my arms and back were sore.’
Before her portrait had caused such a stir, Makenzy’s friends and neighbors were intrigued by her talent.
She had agreed to several commissions, although she says she found this problematic. “I didn’t like taking money for them,” she says. “And I really noticed that the process was different.
“In the future, I’d rather paint something I want to paint than worry about what to charge for it later.”
A small child appears to be laughing with his head back, one of the many pieces Makenzy created in her barn in Swansea
Can she make a fortune with her talents? “I have to get better before I even think about that. My goal now is to show that I am not just a one trick pony.’
Her parents certainly don’t seem to fixate on whether her work will be of value for years to come, though they do admit they have heart palpitations because when asked if they could send the portrait to London to be exhibited, they posted it just with Parcelforce .
And they refused to pay for additional insurance.
“The story was already there when we went to the local post office with everything packed.
The woman said, “Is that what I think it is?” but it would cost £100 for insurance, on top of the £17.50 to ship,” Hannah says.
They regretted this when they tried to track the package and couldn’t figure out where it was. “We had visions that it would be lost or stolen. I was in a cold sweat. But luckily it got there safely.’
What happens to it afterwards, after the exhibition, if they decide not to sell it? “It’ll probably go back in the shed,” Makenzy says.
“But maybe we’ll put something over it to keep it clean.”