• Michelle Meehan

Vibrancy in the City with The Big Picture Fest


Becky Kiil has spent the past four years walking around Newcastle staring at walls. But come the first weekend in October she won’t be the only one focused on Newcastle’s iconic buildings, with the internationally-recognised Big Picture Fest set to transform the city into a giant artist’s canvas.

Over three days this large-scale street art festival will see world-class artists and local creatives leave their legacy on Newcastle’s skyline and streetscapes by creating awe-inspiring murals on 13 inner-city buildings.

The concept was created by international artist Vans the Omega, who is based in Becky’s home town of Adelaide.

It has been held previously in similar post-industrial communities including Port Adelaide and Frankston, drawing upwards of 20,000 people to the inner city over the course of the event.

“I moved to Newcastle around four years ago, and I’ve had an eye on the large scale buildings since that first time I came here,” Becky, the Festival Director, said.

“I’ve had it in my plans for the whole time to have a really large scale international street art festival, without really knowing how to, or when would be an appropriate time.

“I’ve been following a curator and international artist called Vans the Omega for a long time – I’m from Adelaide, and he's from there – and I’ve seen how successful he was with a festival called Wonderwalls Port Adelaide.

“Then he started to have his own brand called the Big Picture Fest, and I could see how much it helped shape Port Adelaide, and helped to really create vibrancy.”

After securing more than $120,000 in funding from City of Newcastle last year under their Special Business Rate grants program, Becky reached out to Vans the Omega to turn the dream of staging her own Big Picture Fest in Newcastle into a reality.

Other major funding partners have since come on board to support the project, including the Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation and the University of Newcastle.

Redesigned to be a socially-distanced COVID-safe event in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the festival will hit the streets of Newcastle from October 2 to 4, although locals may notice a few of the larger-scale murals beginning to take shape in the days leading up to the event.

Becky believes giving people a chance to see art being created before their own eyes will help form an emotional connection between the crowd and the artwork, especially when so many will showcase the talents of Hunter-based artists.

“We’ll have large scale and medium to very large scale murals being painted live by 14 artists at 12 major sites throughout the city,” Becky said.

“The nature of this event means it can be spread out, and we can manage each site to ensure people are social distancing, so it’s really lovely that people get to see public art being made, and they get to be out and active while still being COVID safe.

“People will be able to wander as they like throughout the city to see these walls being painted, so they'll actually have a long sort of emotional connection to the mural because they’ve seen it happen.

“The artists are local up-and-coming and Australian national level professional artists, and also a couple of really respected international artists.”

Top: Artist Olas One

Above: 'Head in the Clouds' by artist Fintan Magee

Becky said she was excited by the inaugural Newcastle Big Picture Fest line-up, with its three internationally-renowned artists including festival creator Vans the Omega, Sydney artist Fintan Magee and former Toowoomba-based creator Brontë Naylor, who has been living in Newcastle since last year, working alongside 11 talented locals.

“Fintan Magee is, I personally think, one of the most cutting-edge mural artists in the world at the moment and Vans the Omega will be running the festival, but he’s also going to do a small piece of art,” Becky said.

“Bronte did an amazing piece in India recently, she is still up-and-coming internationally but is getting recognised pretty well for her large scale murals, so it’s pretty exciting to have her in the city now.

“One of the major things that COVID changed was we had to let go of a couple of international artists because obviously, they couldn't fly over, but this year we’re just so happy to be supporting so many locals. Out of 14 artists, three are not from the Newcastle region, which is pretty cool.

“Part of what drew me to Newcastle in the first place is that there are some exceptional artists and it's a creative space. We have this fascinating creative culture that's very strong and maybe not recognised by mainstream Australia, so this event is going to be an opportunity to push that.”

Other artists on the bill include Inari, CTO, Brett Piva, Ellie Hannon, Ian McCallum, Olas One, Tom Henderson, Patricia Van Lubeck, Jordan Lucky and Sophia Flegg, while the most recent addition to the line-up is Newcastle artist Jasmine Miikika Craciun.

A proud Barkindji, Malyangapa woman who grew up in Newcastle, Jasmine graduated with distinctions from a Bachelor of Visual Communication Design at the University of Newcastle in 2018 and has spent the past three years freelancing as an artist and graphic designer, turning her hand to everything from textiles, painting and illustration to murals, photography, design and animation.

Her participation in Big Picture Fest will be supported by her alma mater, which is the latest funding partner to sign on to the event.

University of Newcastle Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Strategy and Leadership, Nathan Towney, said the university has a strong track record of providing students with a culturally safe space and remains committed to increasing students and staff’s cultural knowledge and understanding.

“Art provides a window into all cultures and history and hence provides a platform for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the wider community to come together to learn about and celebrate culture,” he said.

“To see our graduates go on to work in the creative field and create art that provides the community with a lens into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is something that makes our university extremely proud.”

Jasmine will work with university-affiliated volunteer organisation Out(fit), which will support her through the process of community consultation in the lead-up to creating her artwork, which will be inspired by stories of local Newcastle women and children.

Telling stories with her art has always been an important part of the creative process for Jasmine, as has sharing her diverse cultural background.

“Everything that I do, I like it to have a story behind it,” Jasmine said.

“I want it to be something that visually can explain something deeper. I'm always working towards trying to tell stories.

“I was lucky enough to grow up in a family of many diverse backgrounds; growing up alongside my European immigrant grandparents on my father’s side and my Indigenous family on my mother’s side.

“I feel really grateful to have had such strong, diverse backgrounds within my family. I think it’s also helped to shape what I do with my art, which is sort of trying to tell stories.

“My Oma was Austrian, and my Opa was Romanian, and they lived with me when I was growing up. And so I grew up hearing stories of their youth and obviously their struggles of coming to Australia. Then on the other side, I've got my mum’s story and my nan growing up on the riverbank in Wilcannia.

“I think having these sort of incredible family stories makes me want to express that to the world and be the voice for the amazing histories of my family.”

Jasmine said she was thrilled to be one of the featured artists on the Big Picture Fest program and hopes the work that is created and the stories told through the murals will bring inspiration to others. “I think Newcastle is a really creative, amazing city and Big Picture Fest is something extraordinary for people to be a part of,” she said.

“I think it will bring inspiration to the city and also showcase the talent that is here already because a lot of the featured artists are based locally. It’s just a reflection of how many talented people there are in Newcastle.”

Aside from being able to watch the art being created, Big Picture Fest will also involve a range of public programming. While the final details are still being worked out in line with COVID-19 restrictions, Becky said they are discussing everything from live music and artist workshops to roving theatre and guided walks.

Paper maps and a digital guide accessible via the City of Newcastle app will help direct visitors around the art festival trail, while also encouraging them to explore and interact with businesses in the Hunter Street Mall, Darby Street, Civic and Newcastle West precincts.

Becky believes the impact of the festival will last far longer than its three-day program.

Above: Mural by artist Pichiavo at Wonderwalls, Port Adelaide 2020

“It’s going to create this ongoing amazing vibrancy in the CBD. The whole goal is to be able to bring foot traffic into the city, bring excitement into the city and economic growth from that,” she said.

“We’re looking at trying to create as many broad-based community benefits as we can through what we’re doing and through connecting people to businesses. People will be encouraged to connect with those places during the experience.

“It’s also about increasing the visibility of Newcastle and the identification of Newcastle as a vibrant creative space that is desirable not just for locals, but tourists as well. Big Picture Fest is just going to be emphasising that we are a cutting edge, modern city for locals and visitors to enjoy.”

It’s little wonder that Becky is so passionate about promoting Newcastle, given the first thing she did after moving here was create a business designed to highlight its attractions.

Called Newcastle Afoot, the small tour business offers guided walks and experiences that focus on Newcastle’s exciting community.

Becky said she saw a gap in the provision of experiences that introduce people to Newcastle’s modern and diverse cultural landscape, alongside its heritage and gorgeous beaches.

“I have a pretty diverse background. I studied design architecture and landscape architecture, but never worked in it. And my craft has always been photography, but I don't come from a street art background at all, or a tourism background,” she said.

“I have worked in a lot of different areas, including disability justice and social work. That was my main career when I was living in Melbourne, and I absolutely loved that cosmopolitan city, but I needed to get away from the rain and the busyness.

“Then I fell in love with Newcastle. I came here to visit some friends who had been living in Melbourne. My friend took me through the CBD, and I realised that Newcastle had all the things that Melbourne had that I liked, but all the things that I was also missing that Melbourne didn’t have.

“Newcastle still has the cosmopolitan vibe; it still has the great cafes, exceptional bars, amazing galleries with exceptional national and world-class artwork, all the things that I love, but not the crowd.

“It’s also got an exceptional beach - I was getting sick of driving two hours to go to Torquay every second weekend to go to the beach.

“It just blew my mind that there was a central business district on a beach. It was just amazing that you could step out of the beach and walk one block and be at an exceptionally cool bar.

“I moved here, and I didn't know what I wanted to do with myself, but I thought maybe I should get into hospitality or tourism because I love sharing ideas and inspirations, I love getting to know a place and then sharing it.

“I couldn't find a place that I could or wanted to work for… so I did a course and got some mentoring and set up Newcastle Afoot within my first year of living here.

“I realised that walking tours and guided local experiences allow people to get to know a city in a much deeper way. And they can then engage with the city in a big, and more meaningful way and they get so much more joy and meaning out of the experience.

“I still get excited every time I take people through places like the Newcastle Ocean Baths, just to see their faces as they see the canoe pool, and the beautiful cliffs, and the surfing, and sometimes whales. “You can't help but be passionate about it, and I feel the same about street art in Newcastle too. So it’s a really nice connection.”

Big Picture Fest will run from October 2–4. For more information check out their Facebook page or visit www.newcastleafoot.com.au

Above: Mural by artist Vesod at Wonderwalls, Port Adelaide 2020

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