A small neighbourhood celebration was recently held to mark the completion of a Mural along Elsie Walk, a project involving local community artists, funded by the City of Sydney and auspiced by the Glebe Society. Gail Jones, a novelist, academic and local Glebe resident recently described the mural in an essay titled ‘Turnings and Over-turnings in Glebe’, which was published in the Sydney Review of Books.

Along Elsie Walk, which borders the Glebe Primary School, there’s an exuberant mural painted on the side of a house by Liz Rooney with the assistance of (Aunty) Kath Dodd Farrawell. The mural honours the establishment of Elsie in 1974, when a small group of feisty women seized two vacant houses in Westmoreland Street and converted them into a women’s refuge. At each end of the wall are the black and white silhouettes of sheltered mothers and children. In the centre, radically simple, is a brilliantly coloured fantasy space, mostly cerulean blue sky, that features grass, water, a distant shore and a rainbow of hope. After the artist died her image was painted into the mural, kneeling as if still in the act of painting, and children from the school added their child-like flowers. Tucked away as it is, this might seem a minor vision. But it’s a bright surprise and an artefact wholly of the community. It references solidarity and the sharing of space. That the best view is from the primary school seems entirely appropriate. Against the monumentalism of bridges and the tales of great houses (of which this suburb has many), these pocket-shaped reminders, modest, sweet, flagrant in contrast, carry the story of other needs and the assertion of collective feeling. Berger thought wall paintings essentially a life-enthusiasm, and an address to the future. I side-track here often, returning from the markets or the bookshop, to pass with a nod of recognition, and to be reminded.

A panoramic shot of the Elsie mural (image: Phil Young) (The slight imperfection in the rainbow is a result of the photography process, and is not in the mural itself)

A small ceremony was held at Elsie Walk on 6 May. In Councillor Jess Scully’s address to a group of locals, she highlighted the importance of art to the city. Katharine Vernon also spoke on the occasion and here is an extract:

The Elsie Walk mural is truly a community artwork for so many people were involved. The mural was the idea of the women who formed The Glebe Community Action Group. They came up with the idea firstly of naming this unnamed laneway as ‘Elsie Walk’ in honour of Elsie Women’s refuge, the very first women’s refuge in Australia. Lord Mayor Clover Moore officially named Elsie Walk in 2012 and following this the Glebe Community Action Group suggested a mural should be painted along Elsie Walk. Two local women artists were engaged on the mural project, Auntie Kath Farrawell and Liz Rooney. Both of these artists were well known in the Glebe community and their creative skills recognised. Both Aunty Kath and Lizzie had worked closely with local kids and teenagers over the years.

A community grant was needed to fund the mural and the Glebe Society was asked to auspice the community grant, that is, administer the grant. I recall the first time I met with Aunty Kath and Lizzie to scope out the mural. They were clearly passionate about the mural. We would walk the length of Elsie Walk and they would share ideas about how they would paint the story of Elsie’s refuge. There was a wonderful energy between them and you could see that they shared a common vision, with each contributing to the design of the mural. Their enthusiasm was infectious. They were a great team together and they looked forward to involving others, especially local children, in various stages of the mural painting.

Our application for a community grant was approved and funding was made available by the City of Sydney. We thank the City of Sydney for their generous support. The first steps in such a project are largely administrative, for we needed to obtain planning permissions which involved approvals by the Dept of Housing and the Land and Housing Corporation. As I was not very well at the time I needed to call on some help in this matter. Who better than Jan Wilson for the task! Picture Jan arm-in-arm (so to speak) with Deputy Lord Mayor Robyn Kemmis and Nick Hespe, the manager of the City of Sydney’s Glebe Neighbourhood Service Centre, meeting with the Department officials in Elsie Walk. Not only were the necessary planning approvals obtained but Jan managed to persuade the Dept of Housing to donate $220 to cover the cost of the Development Application which had to be lodged with the City of Sydney. Thanks Jan, for your effort.

With planning approvals under our belt the mural could begin – or so we thought. But another hurdle emerged. The state government announced the closure of all women’s refuges in New South Wales. The Manager and staff at Elsie Women’s Refuge were retrenched and the St Vincent de Paul Society took over the premises, though we were unclear as to its future. So we had to wait and see what the eventual plan for women’s refuges would be, for we knew there was considerable push-back from the public. In late 2014 we learnt that Vinnies was going to run Elsie Women’s Refuge.

So, in February 2015 Aunty Kath and Lizzie set to work. Lizzie had prepped the wall and painted the large background colours on the mural. Auntie Kath painted the silhouettes of the women and children at the bookends of the mural. One day I noticed the rainbow that Liz was working on was finished. Wow, it was simply beautiful!

Sadly Liz Rooney died in tragic circumstances soon after and her loss was deeply felt by so many people. In our grief, her rainbow somehow brought some solace – she had left us the most beautiful gift of the rainbow. Constantly it reminded me of Lizzie – her warmth, her care and creativity that she readily shared with others. Indeed, she painted rainbows in the hearts of so many people around her. And this rainbow was a constant reminder.

We all needed time to grieve. Later that year we talked with Lizzie’s family and it was clear that we wanted to see how we could incorporate something of Lizzie into the mural as a tribute to her. As a result Kate Brennan, facilitator with the Glebe Tree House, painted an image of Lizzie kneeling in front of the rainbow she was painting. Kate, you did a wonderful job, thank you.

Over time other parts of the mural took shape. I’m so grateful to Lizzie’s family who came and spent time with us painting the decorations of flowers and butterflies on the mural. These images of hope, healing and beauty that had been chosen by Auntie Kath and Liz to represent the valuable service of Elsie’s refuge became a source of healing for us in the midst of the heartache we felt over the loss of Lizzie. We thank the whole family for sharing part of your journey with us here in Glebe.

Other kids joined in as well and I recall meeting one of the staff from Elsie’s who was also helping to paint some decoration on the mural. I know that Aunty Kath valued all those passers-by who would stop and admire the mural and share their memories of Liz. Nearby neighbours would come over to the mural with cups of coffee and Tim Tams for Aunty Kath as she painted. Such kindness was so appreciated. Kelly Wallwork, who had painted the tram mural on the corner of Glebe Point Rd and Hereford St, joined Aunty Kath to help in the final stages of the mural. They shared stories as they added the finishing touches to the mural. Thank you, Kelly, for your wonderful help.

And so it is that this mural is testimony to community, for so many people helped along the way. I thank all of you who were involved in one way or another. And a special thanks to Aunty Kath. The mural is a fitting tribute to the service that Elsie Women’s Refuge has provided since 1974.