13 May 2015

Giant Paintings - Stories from the Parks

From New Zealand Society, 3:30 pm on 13 May 2015

Projected Fields project on Macaslister Park Wellington
Projected Fields project on Macaslister Park, Wellington - Artist Siv Fjaestard, photo courtesy Letting Space

It was amazing for us, to look down today and see the paintings on the top field and see the whole space activated. My four year old daughter got so excited she ran the entire way down. For her to suddenly understand scale, it's great that art can do this!  

– Tracy Monastra, local community member.

Gallery: Giant paintings

I was awestruck myself, sitting breathless at the top of the hill overlooking Macalister Park. It was as if giant aliens had landed and had a "field day" (forgive the pun) with enormous paint brushes on the grass of the parks in the middle of Wellington. From this vantage point the public art works looked like zany, colorful crop circles.

The Wellington communities that use Macalister and Liardet Street parks are a vibrant and diverse. The visual arts project titled "Projected Fields" record exactly how the public use their common space, as they navigate the park daily between; home, work, school, the city and their many recreational activities. 

The opening of these enormous interactive art works is a public picnic event involving the neighboring suburbs of Brooklyn, Berhampore, Island Bay and Newtown. I'm attending the picnic and launch of this giant painting project that involved ‘fun-painting’ the entire park into its ‘play zones’.

Tracy Monastra on the Macalister Park paintings
Tracy Monastra on the Macalister Park paintings

Happy that it's a dog-friendly picnic, Mayor of our Capital Celia Wade-Brown was just one of the thousand or so people roving the enormous, colorful statistical charts on the grass of Macalister and Liardet Street Parks.

"Seeing people offering their activities - painting, poetry and picnics go well together, it's a wonderful day. I believe one of the paintings is about all the people who volunteer in Wellington."

"They're actually are statistical pie-graphs." Letting Space Curator Sophie Jerram tells me. Who are Letting Space?

"Letting Space seeks to transform the relationship between artists, the public and their environments to enable social change. Our work is about increasing the public commons, finding new ways through art, the media and urban revitalisation to think more creatively and collectively about our environment ... We empower artists to be courageous as agents of change, and work with commercial and property partners to create programmes that transform the way we treat urban spaces as living spaces."

And the team behind Letting Space are based in Wellington, including curators; Sophie Jerram, Mark Amery and Helen Kirlew Smith.

Sophie Jerram, Letting Space Curator and the French Documentary team
Sophie Jerram, Letting Space Curator and the French Documentary team

At the activity tents set up in one corner of Liardet Street Park, Mark Amery and Sophie Jerram are both covered in paint splatters. Sophie tells me that parks (and cemeteries) really are communal places:

"This is about recognising that these are the places where our lives begin and end - in shared public spaces. This is where family and community get together."

It’s the brainchild of artist Siv Fjærestad  produced by Letting Space in partnership with Wellington City Council. Siv visualised the fields being covered by giant abstract paintings, representing the communities and creating an interactive public art work for the community to literally “play” on.

Sophie Jerram tells me that with the help of Letting Space, Siv Fjærestad interviewed lots of users of the park during 2014.

"All the coloured segments represent statistics of users of the park. Some of it was from a national "time use" survey done in 2006. For instance one part of the pie-graph illustrates that 20% of voluntary time is spent on unpaid work taking place in the parks."

Sophie also tells me that Siv wanted to recognise a lot of things that weren't acknowledged, such as voluntary work around the city or how numerous and diverse the communities were that used the parks.

"This is about how we might celebrate these parks and its really in response to Siv's lovely art works."

Artist Siv Fjærestad is busy preparing a hands-on game for the public - "blindfolded painting" with the field marking machines. They look like a fleet of paint splattered lawn mowers, only much more fun.

After painting for a week her own hands are covered in the non-toxic, child-friendly red, black and fluoro-yellow natural water based dyes that are used by the city council to mark the fields.

We're going to have some blind-folded painting, which means the public put on a blindfold and try to push these painting machines across the field in a straight line.

Siv tells me that this public art project has been at least two years in the planning and has involved so much voluntary time and energy from the communities surrounding the parks. The public really created the event themselves.

"We did extensive public consultation to learn what kind of activities and groups used the parks. There are so many people, so many sport groups using them, they come from as far as Porirua."

"Holy smoke! That's bad!" exclaims one blindfolded painter, who swears he'd only had one beer for the day. His blindfolded attempts at painting the field almost match my own  (I couldn't resist having a go with the blindfold too).

The end result is another giant, minimalist painting. Wildly intersecting white, pink and orange lines curve across the grass.

Letting Space curator Mark Amery has been flat-out since early morning setting up the park.

"We've been saying thanks for having us, because it's about the community creating the event. We're interested in Macalister and Liardet Street parks because they sit at an intersection between many suburbs and disparate groups in Wellington."

Mark tells me that they wanted to bring the parks together as one commons. Mark tells me that somehow bringing together diverse activities such as zumba, girl guides, poetry reading, kite flying and soccer in one festive event was really rewarding.

"The wonderful thing about picnics; they involve a lot of organising but they open you up to the unexpected, to unexpected meetings. What I love about parks is that within minutes my children will have made friends. That's what parks are about, they're these social spaces where we encounter and experience "us" in all our diversity."

Coop's Hoop Group, led by Lucy Cooper are a group of hoping enthusiasts from Featherston who have turned up to let their hula-hoops loose on the public. A group of grandparents and their grandchildren are unanimously delighted by their new found hooping skills.

At the History Booth a group of parents from Berhampore school have gathered to share oral histories. They have a recording device ready to go in the booth and members of the public are encouraged to share what history they know about their neighborhood.

Sadie Coe left and the History Booth Team from Berhampore
Sadie Coe (left) and the History Booth Team from Berhampore

Sadie Coe tells me that this year Berhampore School celebrates its centenary. A group of highly qualified school parents are seizing the opportunity to examine the history of the suburb as a whole, and of the place of the school within this social context, in the form of a professionally produced book to be launched just before the centenary celebrations to take place on Labour Weekend.

Their aim is produce an educational and social history of the school and suburb, not intended to be a detailed record of the school from decade to decade; rather to illuminate distinctive social patterns, events and people placing the school within its wider community context.

Sadie tells me that Macalister Park used to be a rubbish tip. Buried deep beneath the earth is all the equipment left behind by the American Marines after World War Two.

One dad is playing scary monster and roaring at squealing, delighted children as they dive under a multi-coloured silk parachute. They're the children and families from the Berhampore Kindergarten and they're at home on the section of painted grass that looks like a giant tartan kilt.

One kindergarten teacher tells me her favourite statistic represented in the giant bar graph apparently reveal that 77% of girls from 5 to 10, compared to 55% of boys of the same age, spend time playing outdoors.

Favourite part of the day for five-year-old Olive is flying her homemade kite. Mum Leonie and Dad Jarrod tell me that Olive made her green sausage kite out of a Wellington city council recycle rubbish bag, a couple of sticks and some string. It works beautifully, catching the wind and soaring above the crowd.

Simplicity is the key, the kids love making their own stuff Jarrod tells me. Olive and her parents are off to the lolly scramble next, the highlight of the event they're sure.

DJ for the day, playing a selection of funk, reggae and pop-rock mixes, Kedron Parker had been wondering where her six year old boy Cheech had got to. It turns out Cheech had joined the kite making team. Kedron tells me Cheech was so proud of his finished masterpiece, that he had decided his kite was too good to fly.

A French documentary team are also interviewing Siv and the Letting Space team against the setting of the public picnic event and the art works.

"It's a personal project, it's called Sundays in the City. It's about what activities and events bring people together in parks."

The French documentary makers are impressed by what Wellington city offers it's public, especially with festive events like this. They've already shot four episodes in cities like Stockholm, Lima and Sydney.

"Loneliness is starting to be an issue in big cities and so we wanted to know how to build people centered cities. This is a great example here in Wellington, to see how the arts can engage and get people together."

Will this kind of giant "park painting picnic" happen again?

"Not right now but I'd love it to happen again in the future," Sophie Jerram tells me, "When art can initiate great ideas, things like this, it's fantastic. It's not necessarily our role to create picnics for the public but we can see there is a total appetite for these kind of things. These art events really are a catalyst for the public to take up. Maybe the community can take it on and make it an annual festival."

"That's our role with Letting Space, to be catalysts for social change."

And climbing to the top of the hill at Macalister Park, the full impact the huge art works on the fields below are finally revealed.  I join Tracy Monastra who has come with her ecstatic four year old daughter.

"It's extraordinary! The view up here is really stunning. You start to see the city in a different light. Because the space has been activated in this way I feel like I'm learning something new about my neighborhood."

As we watch children roll joyously down the giant blue-black, red and fluoro-yellow bar graphs painted on the side of Macaistair Park hill, it seems that the remarkable interactive nature of these giant art works with the public is the secret cohesive.

These disparate groups of people are joined on common ground; after all what other giant public art work could you walk, run, roll and play on?

Sophie tells me the beauty of these temporary giant paintings on the fields is that they are NOT precious; it doesn't matter if you mess the art on the grass up a bit, it will all wash away anyway. The children can get paint on their clothes and hands and it will all wash off too. It's the memories of the giant visuals and community picnic that will stick.

"It's very safe, visually new and extremely interactive. Maybe that's the joy of it, it's public art that is fully engaging, art with no restrictions."