How a Mural Changed The Way I Worked

When I first arrived in Nowra a well known travel guide referred to it as the place you drive through to get to somewhere nice. Not a glowing reference. Nowra is 2 hours south of Sydney on the South Coast of NSW. It nestles on the amazing Shoalhaven River and serves as the administration and service centre for the towns and villages of the Shoalhaven including Jervis Bay. The Shoalhaven is one of the most visited domestic tourist destinations in NSW.

My first impression of Nowra very much fitted the description in the travel guide. The worst thing was that many residents appeared to believe the summary in the guide. In short, a struggle town. However, over time I came to love living in Nowra. I found community members who cared for each other and a vibrant, if underground, arts/music scene. The local council had staff who cared about where they lived and really wanted to make it into a great place to live.

After two years I joined the Council and worked in Community Development for the next 15 years. I led a dedicated, skilled, passionate and people centred team of workers who did everything they could to build connected community. We were involved in many great projects but the one that had a major impact on me wasn’t one of my team’s projects but one where a number of Council units pooled their resources in an effort to revitalise the Nowra CBD.

This project had a number of components but the one that left a lasting impression on me was a mural project to enliven an enclosed open air car park – Egan’s Lane. The car park sits behind the main street is ringed by the rear of shops. It was functional but unwelcoming. The Council owned three of these buildings: a Library, Arts Centre and a large vacant shop. These three buildings were next to each other and each had large walls facing the car park.

The mural was to be painted on the wall of the vacant shop. The wall was white and an attractor for graffiti. At the same time Council had opened a laneway between the shop and the Arts Centre. It was the width of driveway. This provided an opportunity to, not only complete the major mural but also to utilise street art to make the laneway an attractive feature in the CBD landscape.

The staff member project managing the mural and laneway art work had an active interest in art and was also a talented visual artist. I imagine the project gave her an opportunity to work with one of her passions. She had engaged an internationally renowned mural artist for the project – Guido Van Heltern.

It isn’t so much the mural that impacted me, although it is an incredible piece of work, but the attitude the project manager brought to the work. Local Government is a notoriously risk averse environment. There are policies and procedures for every conceivable situation and organisations are governed by Work Health and Safety to such an extent that I’m still amazed how much can be achieved. I was used to community projects where I had no idea what the result would be but I was always certain the result would be a stronger and more connected community. But throw an arts based end game into the mix and I start to feel ill at ease and Council risk aversion kicks in. This is because the physical end result is important and not just the social result.

When the project manager was asked at a planning meeting what WHS measures she had put in place, such as barriers signage etc her reply was “Do I need to?” A refreshing response from someone senior in the organisation. This reminds of the approach taken by David Engwicht in his booklet “Outward Spiral Thinking”. In determining the base need in a situation or project he advocates asking “but why?” at least three times. This question commences a conversation that helps to get the real issue at hand. In short, the project manager had asked but why? This meant that any additional and unnecessary measures could be eliminated and the project completed unhindered from largely redundant obstacles.

Although, the project involved a little more chaos than many I’ve been involved with it taught me some valuable lessons:

  • Interrogate the necessity of barriers “But Why?”
  • A little chaos can be a good thing
  • Feeling a little discomfort keeps you on your toes
  • Most of all it showed me how risk averse I was and this could lead to restricting the success of a project

In the end a fantastic mural was completed that was the first of many. The laneway became a focal point of some quality street art. We celebrated the completion of the mural with a laneway party. More importantly I learnt valuable lessons in appreciating not only the social result, which was my focus, but the also physical result of the project

One Reply to “How a Mural Changed The Way I Worked”

  1. Alan, brilliant story that illustrates key principles we have advocated for years; ask “but why, there is such a thing as “good chaos”, and taking a risk is at the heart of everything good that is ever created. Well done!


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