IN DROUIN, a town in neighbouring Baw Baw Shire, a large wall mural of birds surrounded by ficifolia blossom has just been completed by Dan Wenn of 90 Degrees Art. It is a stunningly lovely insertion into a dreary, tatty, congested shopping area.
The public response has been extraordinarily positive. People have stopped by to watch the progress – chatted with each other and with Friends of Drouin’s Trees volunteers who have been distributing all sorts of materials and information. Tradies have bipped and thrust an upturned thumb at Dan as he has worked; selfie-lovers and serious photographers have propped close to, and far from, the mural to capture great shots. Facebook is full of positive comments. Believe it or not, new acquaintanceships and connections have formed in the last ten days.
Across decades, I have observed the benefits of public art projects and arts involvement. The intangible, difficult to evaluate outcomes, of joy, satisfaction, achievement, connection to others, newfound confidence, united effort and teamwork, and – yes – empowerment. “I can”, “we can”, ripple out from art works for years and years. The Small Town Transformation-Waterline Towns (Luminous Galleries) project lives on and on in this way.
As a writer, mostly of works for theatre, I have struggled to find a way to reach others about the issue of over-development in our shire. Alongside others, especially Friends of Drouin Trees, I have written letters to politicians, lobbied the council, been involved in battles with legal appeals for justice; I have been in meetings and consultations, have written essays and articles, and made endless phone calls. Years of our lives have been stripped away while mature, even remnant forest and protected trees have been savagely removed.
I felt much of my writing was reaching the sympathetic and converted, the disempowered, or the wilfully obtuse. I have also become aware of the ‘spin’ around language used. Environmental groups are labelled “tree-huggers” and “greenies” as pejoratives rather than badges of honour. It is a down dirty fight to the end driven by huge profits for a few and employment opportunities.
Sadly our magnificent trees will be gone forever and the developers will move on to another place to repeat the process. Yet development doesn’t have to mean carnage for mature trees. It can be done sensitively and creatively and in an environmentally sound way. But how to make more people even think about this issue? How do we empower people? Make them believe they can do something about an issue that impacts their entire community?
This mural is powerful.
At last, the people of Drouin are talking about the trees and the birds that depend on them. Every time they go to a supermarket, they will not only be uplifted by the beautiful, colourful image but also reminded of the environmental threats of rampant urban development in our regional town, as well as the skill of the artist and the delights of public art.
Can a mural have an impact on popular opinion and encourage new voices to speak up? Politically, it is a matter of numbers. The topic and scale of this visual work and its placement where no one can possibly miss it challenges each person to think of a time when birds may only be found on walls in books and on screens.
Murals eventually fade and peel … they are decommissioned, painted over, but the period of joy they bring, the step out of everyday monotonous routine, the connection to something other than self is worth it.
I want people to know that everyone can be part of unfunded projects; ordinary people reached into their own pockets and paid for this uplifting piece of art with the simple purpose of improving our place, and keeping it better for the community and future. I am hopeful many more people will see a reason to do something that benefits others and for unselfish reasons.
For my part, I have been impressed and inspired by the work of the small group of caring hard-working people who have established the Bass Coast Prize for Non Fiction Writing - giving a voice and incentive to writers. I was fortunate to win second prize of $3000, in 2020, and was able to turn the prize money into a contribution towards mural costs in 2021. So the Prize has lived on in another impressive artistic vision. The gift that keeps on giving.
For the anonymous donors of the Drouin wall mural, the responses, the joy and conversation it has already sparked are priceless. Hopefully communities will find many different ways to harness the scope and charm, the ambitious visions found within the arts, in all its forms, to explore and challenge and fight for the things that are important to them.
OH GOOD GOD! NO! A mural of a pothole!!!!!!!!