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Curtin gets colourful as PUBLIC Campus 2016 begins

News story

Today’s urban art is a more than graffiti tags. It has evolved from transient sketchings hidden in backstreet corners into striking forms of social expression that are displayed proudly in public.

Artist paints colourful roof atop a cherry picker.
Technicolour dream: American artist HENSE works on the roof of building 408. Image courtesy of Bewley Shaylor and FORM.

Curtin is at the helm of bringing contemporary art to the wider community as part of PUBLIC Campus 2016, FORM’s festival of urban activation and art, which kicked off at Curtin on Monday.

Artists have come from all over the world including Tunisia, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Spain and the US, and are joined by homegrown talent to create larger-than-life installations on prominent buildings around campus. Each work will reflect the artist’s individual talent and style, and aim to complement the space that surrounds it.

North American artist HENSE has returned to WA to paint his second mural for FORM. Although he won’t be taking on another 38 metre grain silo mural, this year’s piece will be no less impressive. He’s only a week in to his mural on the undercover roof of building 408, but his undulating technicolour vision is swiftly taking shape.

“I’m excited on this occasion because I’ve never been to the university and I’d thought it’d be cool to do a site specific piece, and being that it was a ceiling was also exciting, because I’ve never done that,” HENSE said.

Over at building 302, Fremantle-based artist Chris Nixon is also working with his first ceiling as he paints a “gateway to the sky”. His mural will feature a geometric butterfly that will act as a looking glass to the world above.

“This is the first time I’ve painted on the ceiling, so I’m using it as a way to introduce some nature and natural themes to an otherwise built up space,” he said.

Based in Fremantle, Nixon draws inspiration from the suburb’s coastline and surf culture. “A lot of my work features nature, but I have a background in graphic design, so I try to bring those elements into my work so there’s a contrast between loose and structured.”

In counter to Chris’ exploration of nature, Perth creative Jessee Lee Johns is looking how urbanisation can affect our perceptions of freedom. His bushy beard and glasses are flecked with white paint as he applies the base coat of what is to become a two-dimensional mural of a petrol station.

“I’ve chosen the rural service station partly because they’re interesting buildings, but it can be hard to do a painting like this without it being too ‘Australiana’ or colloquial,” Johns says.

“I guess I want to draw attention to the fact that we have this romance about road trips, freedom and escape, but the only reason those things are possible is because of the infrastructure we have in place, and because of all those organised services like petrol and petrol stations which enable us to feel like we’re disconnecting from humanity.”

artist works on black and white mural on the side of Robertson Library from cherry picker

Italian artist MILLO works on his larger-than-life mural outside the Roberston Library. Photo: Sam Proctor, Curtin University.

Many public creations often hold earnest social or political themes beneath their aesthetic surface. Karim Jabbari is a Tunisian calligraphy artist based in Canada, and he discovered calligraphy was a way to cope with and make sense of his external environment.

“When I was eleven years old my father was taken to prison as a political opponent. It was very hard for us. I started writing because my father had this amazing collection of books and they had this old handwriting in them. I was attached to these books without any idea of knowing what was written. Every day I started writing out this calligraphy; I felt like it gave my life a purpose.”

Jabbari’s mural will recreate the lettering used on old Tunisian coins, and will feature on building 208 where a lot of Curtin’s writing classes are held, a fitting choice for his work.

“It’s always beautiful to enjoy the curves of the letters. It’s something which is really magical,” he said.

PUBLIC 2016 is the brainchild of FORM, an independent non-profit organisation that has helped advance artistic and creative practice in WA since 1968.

“It’s about using culture and creativity to enrich the way in which we live, work and learn,” said FORM’s Executive Director Lynda Dorrington.

Curtin Vice-Chancellor Deborah Terry said the event reflects the University’s international and multicultural focus, and was delighted to be partnered with FORM.

“As a leading centre for design, art, architecture and urban planning and research study, Curtin is the perfect venue to embrace large scale, innovative, artistic expression.”

Two artists work on their murals outside.

Perth artist Jessee Lee Johns works on his mural from above while Tunisian Karim Jabbari adds to his work at ground level. Photo courtesy of Bewley Shaylor and FORM.


Urban art has steadily found its way into public popularity partly due to its emphasis on accessibility and interaction. People don’t need to go to a gallery to view art behind a rope, but can experience it right up close on the walls of their own suburbs, on footpaths, vacant lots and council buildings.

Curtin’s Place Activation Coordinator Tara Deans said urban art “creates a sense of place that encourages people to have ownership of the space, making them inclined to visit more often and stay for a longer duration of time.”

Projects like PUBLIC Campus also enable the public to witness art as it unfolds; they become engaged in the artistic process, which works to further dissolve traditional notions of what is considered art and how it can be viewed.

“I’ve never really conscribed to the idea that everyone hates graffiti,” said renowned Perth artist Stormie Mills.

Mills started painting walls in 1982, and was there with spray can in hand at the very beginnings of the street art evolution. He believes it’s a “generational thing” that has seen the bourgeoning of the city’s public art scene.

“A lot of the people that I used to know when I was a kid painting, they’ve had children, and their children are young teenagers now and they’re experimenting in this sort of stuff,” Mills said.

“Generally people are more informed, and they’re more embracing of it. It’s less of a mystery to people and they’re less scared of it.”

Artist in cherry picker with developing artwork of an astronaut in background.

Local talent Stormie Mills and his monochromatic astronaut on the Engineering building. Photo courtesy of Bewley Shaylor and FORM.

Though the murals still have a few days before their completed, the event has created a definite buzz around campus.

“I think it’s a brilliant idea,” said audience member Michelle. “It creates vibrancy, interest and discussion. It’s a really good initiative.”

As well as providing a canvas for the artist’s murals, Curtin will host a sold-out forum on Friday night where HENSE and Karim Jabbari will join UK artist Bruce Munroe and share how their approaches to art engages audiences and enriches their understanding of space.

PUBLIC Campus continues until Sunday 10 April with free, guided artwork tours happening on Friday and Saturday, and a wind up party on Saturday night.

Head to the hexagon at upper Henderson Court to discover more information about the event, including maps of where to find the artists and their works, download the information from the FORM website or view the completed works on the PUBLIC Campus 2016 project page.

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