As I park my car beside Labuan Square, a small shopping strip in Norlane, Geelong, artist Laura Alice greets me with smile. She ushers me into the non-profit café where she regularly volunteers, orders me a latté and a chicken sandwich, and sits me down below a sign cobbled together from old print blocks and teaspoons to form the establishment’s name. It is both kitsch and classy and I compliment it. Laura admits that she made it herself.
Laura is the founder of the Street Heart Project, which comprises a series of ‘hope-filled, whimsical and organic’ large-scale paste-ups and a community yarn-bombing group (if you’re not familiar with the process of covering trees, bollards, bikes and the like with crocheted covers, see here for an introduction). Street Heart was launched last November, and Laura received a grant from the City of Greater Geelong to undertake the project.
Laura moved to Norlane about a year ago, aiming to contribute to positive social change through artwork and creativity. Norlane is one of Victoria’s most socially and economically disadvantaged suburbs, and as a result both Labuan Square’s business owners and patrons have suffered. ‘The thing with Labuan Square is that it was a thriving place fifty years ago,’ Laura explains. ‘The shopping centre was always buzzing with people, there were loads of banks and fruit and veggie shops … it was like a real community hub. And over the years it’s become rougher and rougher. In some ways [it has] an undeserved reputation; in other ways, there are real social issues are that are difficult to deal with – we have a methadone program here, we’ve got two bottle-os.’
Laura’s contribution to the revitalisation of Labuan Square – and hence the businesses and the lives of nearby residents – began with changing the space itself. ‘The idea was to bring beauty and colour into a forbidding place,’ Laura says, ‘and make it into an inviting place – a place where kids could play, or people could positively interact with each other.’ Art in this case, then, is seen as not merely aesthetic – but a platform for transforming space, public behaviour and attitudes.
The paste-ups provide an immediate burst of freshness and colour. Spaced between each store, they range in size from merely large to utterly enormous and depict natural yet fantastic figures, as birds float out of men’s beards, children grow twigs from their hair, and owls seem far too wise. ‘I wanted lots of colour and innocence and whimsy,’ Laura says as we walk around the square, ‘the kind of things that all humanity can relate to. So even though, traditionally, drawing pictures of things like trees and birds [are] considered in the art world maybe a little bit trite, I find that people relate to them, kids relate to them, old people relate to them. Some of my work has a tinge of sadness as well. I guess it’s just holding [that] tension – beauty with sadness – which is just part of life and part of the walk that we walk.’
Each picture incorporates intricate patterns drawn with black ink over the earthy greens, browns and deep blues of the painted paper base. Laura researched and integrated traditional designs from Australian indigenous, Indian, Japanese, Indonesian and African cultures, so that the artworks themselves seem to symbolise an ideal community: a variety of cultures, histories and traditions, brought together to form a rich and coherent whole.
Community bonds in Labuan Square were not only symbolically galvanised. Laura became well acquainted with each shopkeeper in the strip as she proposed her project to them, and consulted with the businesses to ensure that her work complemented theirs. So the fish and chip shop is adorned with a young pirate boy, complete with eye patch, clutching a bowl of fish; the hairdresser’s with a young girl whose ropey long hair twists up the side of the shopfront. The square folk hope that foot traffic, and hence business, will increase as a result of the Street Heart project.
Though I didn’t get to see much of the guerrilla yarn mob’s work (only remnants remained from the launch), I was lucky enough to meet the women themselves in the café; they were knitting reams of ‘coral’ with which to thread-blast nearby towns. Laura explains that the group enjoyed the lead-up to Street Heart launch so much that they decided to continue meeting without her. This move epitomises her ideals: new relationships forged in a sustainable way around a creative medium that looks towards building artistic bridges with other communities.
It is obvious that these bridges drive Laura’s passion for the community. ‘It comes down to relationships,’ she says. ‘You can care objectively about someone in need, but until they’re your neighbour or your friend or the kid that you babysit down the street, then you don’t really, really care, and you’re not moved to action for it.’ As we finish the tour of the square, shopkeepers and shoppers call out to Laura by name, and she responds just as personally before heading back to the café.
Julia Tulloh is a Killings columnist and works for the Victorian Government. She also took the photos. Julia’s own government work is not related to the Street Heart Project or the community development funding of the City of Greater Geelong.