Kate Hine, painter and cartoonist, resident artist at Wanniassa High School, Canberra 1998
When I was young, paintings on walls were mainly uncomplimentary statements about Pig Iron Bob on the backs of the grotty buildings I could see from the train on my way to school.
In my naivete, I was even then envious of the Mexican scene, the best bits of which (apart from the ubiquitous sombrero and cactus) were the stunningly colourful murals covering whole sides of buildings in an otherwise dun coloured Mexico City. Why not in Australia?
Well, wall painting has come of age, and Canberra has its own growing culture. Artists range from the young imitative graffiti-ists through to experienced professional artists-in-residence working on school and community projects. In between are the young who take their work beyond pure graffiti. Ginninderra High School was among the first to encourage them. Jon English appeared in black and white profile in the late 1970's - but has recently been painted over with all-embracing cream. Nice over grey concrete, but not so gritty. Time to move on, I guess.
Kate Hine, painter and cartoonist, currently working with woodcuts and linocuts, resided at Wanniassa High School in March this year, producing a collaborative mural of 13 panels with mainly Year 7 students "From Wanniassa High School to the South Coast". This bird's eye journey looks down Michelangelo-like from near the ceiling of a high-traffic area in the school.
Represented in the painting and its placement are the successes and tensions for the artist and the school. Schools all over the nation are decorated with students' and professional work, though painting directly on walls is still taboo in some jurisdictions. Governments don't like to be responsible for the maintenance of anything but their own paint. Hine's frieze is on hardboard sheets painted at ground level.
Ownership defines the experience for the artist and the school. At one end of a spectrum, the Wanniassa work was designed and directed by Hine, but because the school's desire was for a project which would help the new Year 7's to coalesce, the students were much more than colouring in by numbers. For the artist, it was both difficult and an interesting challenge to let the ownership go into the students' hands. The result is clearly a Year 7 work, yet as art teacher Ilona Lasmanis explained, the artistry in the work is the vision and cohesion through the narrative over 13 panels in which some 70 students had a hand - and this is what the artist-in-residence brought to the project.
At a different point in the spectrum, the Aboriginal artist Dale Huddleston, whose work appears in almost every school in Canberra, begins with airbrushed hand stencils (the children provide the hands); he outlines the figures, telling the story of the painting to the children as he goes. The children work on the colours and dots which give the story body; and Huddleston completes the work with the finely done outlining which gives each painting closure and precision of finish. The results are works which look highly professional, owned and signed by Huddleston, yet many unsophisticated child artists have ownership of key elements.
Melba High's current artist-in-residence, abstract colourist Sylva Spasenoski, has helped students, says teacher Anne Thirion, to go from "insipid" work to genuine expressions of their individuality. Spasenoski has operated both in teacher role, setting up classroom exercises and teaching technique, and as pure artist. In return for studio space and materials, her current work in progress is on continuous display. At this end of the spectrum, her painting provokes enquiries, creates awe, and provides a role model. Her product is hers; the students' work is entirely theirs - but there is an empathetic relationship which Thirion describes as worth its weight in gold.
Canberra Girls' Grammar, according to senior teacher Marilyn Faunt, has a case of the Accidental Life of an Artist coming up with the arrival of ex-student Maryanne Nairn in a few weeks. Her project is to turn blocks of sandstone, somehow acquired by gardner extraordinaire Charles Sweeney, into outdoor sculptures. This is a paid position for Nairn, but students will observe the process from first sketches to completed works during the time period when they are planning and creating their own major works. The relationship here is symbiotic: the artist becomes a cultural focal point for the school to feed off.
As Kate Hine observed, each artist needs to "negotiate your ego" in a residency. What the school needs and what the artist expects should be made clear early: ownership is a matter of high emotion.
So have we caught up with Old Mexico? In our own way: artists-in-residence have become part of our culture, integral to education. And, yes, the Wilderness Society and Amnesty International have painted walls in Bunda Street. But I still hanker after the huge and the brilliant. Maybe Dale Huddlestone, with a team of ANU rockclimbers, could do the whole of one side of the Ivory Tower in Woden? That would be a visionary statement of an artist-in-residence indeed.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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