Murals & public art

It took me many years to get used to drawing on any kind of large scale, especially anything larger than A2 size. Several different experiences helped free me up in this area; in particular, when I began running cartoon workshops in schools, drawing on large blackboards (remember them?) and whiteboards in front of a class. Others came in the form of various freelance jobs that required working on a large scale, anything from set design and signwriting, to community murals and footpath chalk artist.

A particular catalyst in the 1990s was when I had a run of work helping out two artist friends, Jay and Tanya, who painted props and backdrops for a company specialising in themed corporate functions & events. Most things we drew and painted were no smaller than 3 sq metres, and the largest was the size of a long wall – it was massive, a painting of a crowd in a football stadium. Naturally we simplified the details of the design, but all three of us had to paint that one simultaneously to meet the deadline. Mapping out these designs in chalk before painting them really helped my confidence in drawing BIG, allowing both arm and perception to relax into larger arcs of movement.

In this archive I’m just focusing on a few different projects I delivered in Tasmania between 2003 – 2016.

In 2003 I was still living on Bruny Island, and in the throes of working on my largest ‘canvas’, the annual Bruny Kids Artzone Festival. Bruny was home to a very creative population then, and in organising the Festival event I met and worked with many local artists. Onesuch was Justus Neumann, a remarkable performer / philosopher who developed many innovative small theatre shows, often incorporating his background in circus, and his penchant for dark comedy and existential paradox. At that time he was developing an ambitious new show, Circus Elysium, to be performed in its own purpose-built marquis tent, the entrance and walls of which he envisioned as decorated with large painted panels, harking back to the aesthetic of touring circuses of the ‘golden age’. I made initial designs for three of these panels (see slideshow below) but unfortunately they were never used; however I did paint a large triangular front panel that formed part of the circus tent entrance. It depicts Justus in his clown costume, gesturing in welcome, surrounded by some of his favourite influences from history, including Punch & Judy and Harpo Marx. Not being a trained painter, my forays into realistic depiction were mostly drawing-based (see Essence Portraits), so it was a rapid learning curve in technique.

In 2005, Bruny Primary School commissioned me to design a fun, interactive mural for a new ‘ball wall’ they’d had installed. The wall was for kids to play handball and other ballgames against. In keeping with Bruny’s island character, I gave it a nautical theme, but I also wanted to create multiple opportunities for creative interaction with the design. The octopus holds targets with point scores to aim for. The bubbles each contain a letter of the alphabet, so students can practice their aim by spelling names or words as they hit the letters. The three strands of kelp at the base of the wall are intended as wickets, if the students want to play cricket. This was a particularly pleasurable job, it was great to work outside in the sun, and I enjoyed being able to contribute something enduring to the school.

Also that year I was approached to be a sidewalk chalk artist at the Taste Of Tasmania event at Salamanca Place, Hobart. I knew I couldn’t offer the kind of photorealistic chalk art that most people are familiar with; instead, I moved around the event area and created spontaneous critters in my own style. Here are some:

In the years I lived on Bruny Island, I was involved in many creative projects at the primary school, and developed a good working relationship with the principal at the time, Gay Cumming. A few years later, we’d both moved off the island and she was principal at another lovely rural school, Franklin Primary. She secured an Artist-in-Schools grant to have me facilitate a different kind of mural project: a painted walkway that somehow incorporated input from every student in the school. The historic town of Franklin is situated beside a beautiful stretch of the Huon River, and the school is one of the oldest in Tasmania, having been founded in 1860. The mural was to mark the school’s 150th anniversary.

This was a massive job logistically. Being a walkway, I had to research safety aspects (eg zero slip factor) and how to make the mural as durable as possible (given the constant patter of little feet). To simplify the design into something that could easily include all ages, I suggested using the Huon River as the theme, and a set of about 12 or more stencils cut to the silhouettes of various fish and other local marine animals. Each student could stencil one character somewhere along the painted river and decorate it themselves, to give it individual character. Sounds so simple! It was a long process, partly due to wet weather and negotiating the mercurial school calendar, but every child got to complete their own critter and there were many wonderful engagements with the students along the way.

In 2016 I was approached with an odd private mural request.  A couple in a Hobart suburb wanted a large cartoon of their two dogs painted on the front wall of their yard.  Rather than a ‘Beware of the dog’ message, the cartoon was designed to inform passers-by that despite their noisy outbursts, the dogs were very friendly.  The design was simple enough, translating it from paper to wall was a bit convoluted, but then it was just a case of colour-by-numbers….in scorching summer sun.  It took several days but I enjoyed the process, and the owners were really happy with the result.  It even warranted an article in The Mercury newspaper. I’ve documented the process in the slideshow below.

Later that year I had another unusual request, not a mural, but certainly large scale and public. Huon Valley Theatre Inc are a local thespian institution, and have been presenting shows annually for many years now.  This particular year they were preparing a revamped ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ pantomime, and asked me to design a series of cartoon background images that could be digitally projected onto the back of the stage for each scene.