September 20, 2022

Reframing public space though street art

Katrina Noorbergen

An undeniable outcome of pandemic life has been a recalibration of our relationship to public space and a heightened awareness of environments that are immediately local – the footpaths in our own neighbourhood, the laneways connecting carparks to cafes, the aisles of the closest grocery store. As our own streets became sites of exploration, we may have imagined new possibilities for the spaces we moved through on the daily lockdown meander.

The cataloguing of urban canvases is an exercise well known to street artists, who, suddenly prevented from travelling and participating in street art festivals elsewhere, looked more intensively at their immediate environments to keep imagining.

Curator Daniel Mudie Cunningham, in an editorial for Artlink during lockdown, reflected on “the notion of public art as a health-related issue” and increasingly relevant to the World Health Organisation’s definition of health as being not just the absence of disease, but “an active process that is created in the daily interaction between individuals, their society and the environment.” This process has recently become obvious in the mid-mountains town of Springwood, which is not traditionally known for street art culture. However, a growing constellation of artistic acupunctures in the small village is challenging that perception.

These new works are not from fly in/fly out artists, rather they represent a kind of hyper-local activation from artists that simultaneously carry detailed personal histories with place and community, alongside their national and international cred. In January 2022, as everyday life regained a sense of itself, and between bouts of La Niña’s torrential summer downpours, Dharug artist Shay Jannowi-Jude Tobin, installed his work Communal Waters in the forecourt of the Blue Mountains Theatre and Community Hub. The work is a topographical outline of the creek systems Tobin explored as a teenager and speaks to the continuing importance of the Springwood waterways to his ancestors, and to people, flora, and fauna today. Communal Waters, painted over a series of previously unadorned retaining walls, physically and symbolically reframes the public forecourt of the town’s cultural precinct – a subtle reminder that our urban structures reside on Aboriginal land.

When borders once again became permeable and flights resumed, established artists such as GRiLS and Helen Proctor participated in a kind of pilgrimage, from the buzzing centres of Amsterdam and Montreal, back to the spots that nurtured and inspired them from childhood. They have now painted walls in Springwood they have visualised into colour many times over while parking the car. Cycle of the Banksia by GRiLS grows over the wall of the local IGA, depicting two large banksia flowers in different stages, from full bloom to hardy pod. The Banksia, a native plant that requires fire to germinate, is an appropriate symbol of resilience for a community that lost over 200 homes in the 2013 fires and holds even more recent memories of yellowed skies and urgent app alerts from the Black Summer Bushfires of 2020. Artists’ ability to lead healing, build community resilience, and boost morale is evidenced through the proliferation of street art images from the pandemic period, showing messages of hope and support for frontline workers. Of the most familiar is Banksy’s gift to a hospital in the UK, a child playing with a superhero toy, but that hero is a cape-wearing nurse, while Batman and his colleague Spiderman lie rejected in the wastepaper bin.

Further along the IGA wall and opposite the Springwood Early Childhood Health Centre and playground, the mural Care for community, care for Country, shows two women gazing at the earth, cradled lovingly in their hands. The message is undeniably uplifting, positive and well-connected to its surrounds, but it is also political. For artist and illustrator Ailie Banks and Wiradjuri Street Artist Merindah Funnel, being active street artists involves an awareness that their presence in public space enhances the visibility of women in a scene which can be intimidating, exclusive and male dominated. Inherent in women’s engagement in street art is a “demand to be safe and to be able to engage in producing urban space.” In the lead up to the install, the artists held workshops with local young women and non-binary people to include their perspectives and create safe spaces for them to explore street art techniques. A gallery of community artworks is made visible via an Instagram augmented reality filter at the site, allowing visitors to share in the activism of caring via social media.

Across the road in the town square, Nastia Gladushchenko alludes to the potential of public space to be playful in her ground installation Step into my dreams, which is based on visions from the local community for their hometown. Collected through a simple survey with passers-by, music, flowers, colours, and dancing are expressed abstractly but joyfully in this artwork, giving more credence to the signage marking the site as the School of Arts Square. In a post-pandemic context, outdoor recreational activities are no longer taken for granted, and are rather, “widely understood as a gift, as a profound release from confinement and isolation.” This celebration of playfulness is fitting for communities in the mountains and beyond who created their own cheerful interventions via chalk art, plush toy assemblages and front yard art installations during the long months of stay-at-home orders.

Krimsone and Scott Nagy’s In the Studio, located in the carpark behind Blooms Chemist, is a striking mural by way of the artists’ identifiable brand of realism, which has received widespread praise on hyper-local social media pages. A man paints a uniquely Blue Mountains landscape – both an appreciation for the high incidence of artists in our region, and the overall reverence with which we consider our World Heritage area and the privilege of living within it. Where once artists hailing from our small villages resolved to show the world where they came from, they are now bringing a world of skill and experience home, stimulating the town’s nervous system with cans of paint, and issues of local and global resonance.

1. Cunningham, DM. (2021) ‘Editorial’ in In Public / Inside, Issue 41:2, August, p 9
2. Kickbusch, I (1989) ‘Health and the City’, Artlink 9, no.2, Winter, p22
3. Mendolicchio, H. B. (2020) ‘Artistic Acupuncture Missions: Penetrating the Public Space’, The Journal of Public Space, 5(4), 209-220, DOI 10.32891/jps.v5i4.1383
4. Shillington, L., ‘Graffiti space and gender,’ in, accessed October 4 2022
5. Cross, D. (2021) ‘Unfettered Actions: Sportification, playgrounds and public art’, in In Public / Inside, Issue 41:2, August, p 97

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