by Paul Clark
Peter Day loves his work. In common with many people, he enjoys painting on walls. Painting on walls has been known to draw unwelcome attention from the authorities, but in the case of Mr Day’s public art it is the authorities who are his clients. He has recently been involved in a City of Sydney Council project to restore the Nickson Street mural What Bird IS That? which Mr Day painted on the side wall of a house in 1981 when he was artist-in-residence in Surry Hills.
There was strong community interest in the original mural in 1981, and Mr Day was delighted to be involved. “I did it for the love of it,” he says. Sydney residents outside Surry Hills may know some of his other public art work because of their sheer scale. Gift Given on the Robyn Webster Sports Centre in Tempe is the largest mural in the southern hemisphere, while King George V Activity Centre in The Rocks is the largest community mural.
The murals are created as part of Mr Day’s Environmental Art + Design practice, and are painted to meet a design brief from a client. His personal works are exhibited and sold privately. “For my personal work I have no responsibility to anyone,” he says. Mr Day has equal passion for his personal work and the public art he creates from the Environmental Art + Design practice. Both have a role to play in meeting the public demand for art, and in generating the income that makes the profession of artist sustainable.
Suffering for his art does not appeal to Mr Day. He says that he was amused by a recent episode of the BBC science fiction show Doctor Who, where the fictional Doctor takes the troubled Vincent van Gogh forward in time to see how his paintings are admired in the 21st Century. “It still didn’t do van Gogh any good,” says Mr Day, “He didn’t have a good time at all.” Mr Day looks as though he is enjoying life. He looks relaxed in neatly pressed dark long sleeve shirt and trousers, his greying hair and full beard neatly trimmed.
What Bird Is That? took about three months to paint in 1981. On returning to refurbish the mural this year he thought the area had remained much the same as 30 years ago. “The people who are there now welcomed us with open arms. It was not as though we were an alien species.” Consultation with the community regarding the restoration of the mural revealed that most people wanted to see it restored as closely as possible to the original form. However, some changes to the mural were unavoidable. “Three windows had been added to the wall, so we had to make some sort of sense out of those,” he says.
There are other challenges, apart from stray windows, associated with public art. Some issues must be managed before even a single brush stroke meets a hard surface. Clients, which are often local councils, do not always know exactly what they want. In addition to the client who actually commissions the work, other interested parties need to be consulted on the project before work starts. Often, as was the case with murals such as What Bird Is That?, the consultation is with local residents.
Consultation comes naturally to Mr Day. “I prefer the ‘drop in and have a cup of tea’ method of community consultation,” he says. On more than one occasion, a glass of red wine or a whisky accompanied the ‘consultation’ in Surry Hills. He says the locals were a fascinating and colourful collection of characters in 1981. One was a former bodyguard of Melbourne Labor powerbroker John Wren, fictionalised in Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory. Another elderly gentleman had been a World War One fighter pilot.
Consultation and flexibility characterises the approach Mr Day takes to public art. The Australian Ambassador to the UN, Mr Richard Woolcott AC, commissioned Mr Day to paint a mural. In a consultative process worthy of the United Nations itself, one mural soon became two. There are secure areas of the Mission in New York, Mr Day explains, where locally employed staff are not permitted to go. One of these restricted areas was the conference room where the mural was to be painted. “The plan was to have one mural in the conference room,” says Mr Day. “The locally employed staff rebelled because they would not get to see it, even though they would contribute to it, so they wanted another one in the foyer.”
The Australian Ambassador asked if a small portion of one mural could be kept available so that visiting dignitaries could daub a little paint on. “So the Ambassador could bring someone in and say, ‘This is Peter Day, oh and by the way would you like to paint a bit on this mural?’ So the Irish Ambassador came in and painted a bit on the mural, and then someone from Sweden, then someone else. The Ambassador used it to break up whatever he was doing and change the head space of the meeting he has having.”
Mr Day came up with the idea of allowing visitors to paint on on his projects while working on the original What Bird Is That? “We developed a technique so the kids could have a go. ‘Blot, Dribble and Wiggle’ we called it. In a landscape mural like that it is ‘un bugger-up-able’, you can’t do anything wrong. It all contributes,” he says.
In addition to making allowances for windows in the restored What Bird Is That, Mr Day and his team decided to introduce some other new details. “The little birds don’t stand out terribly much, especially on a very rough wall. So we laser cut a dozen birds out of stainless steel, and nine of those we painted as accurately and delicately as we could back in the studio on a rainy day. Three of them we just left bare stainless steel.” The unpainted birds are one more detail to provide a talking point and involve people in the mural. The flora in the mural was deliberately chosen to depict the kind of plants people could establish in their own gardens, “Hopefully to attract these birds back to the city,” says Mr Day.
The restored mural will last many years without further work, as the paint used is a long lasting mineral silicate type which Mr Day has made his specialty. “It’s an absolute joy to work with, in a different way to oil paints which are also a joy to work with. There is something that happens, at least to me, when I am mixing up colours and putting them on the wall. There’s nothing better, it’s just a lovely thing that happens.”