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  • Samantha Wortelhock Mural Artist

The Owl, The Pussy Cat and The Humpback Whales


A glimpse into the life of a mural artist and visionary painter.

SAM’S CORNER: MAY 2017

As Christmas 2016 approached I thought I was just exhausted. I’d been painting murals at Tweed Heads South Public School in full sun for weeks leading up to the school holiday break.

I noticed in myself a strange personality switch. I’d become uncharacteristically reclusive, warning dear friends to give me space for rest. I’d also gone off things that used to excite me, alcohol being one of those things and some of my favourite foods.

A lovely Christmas lunch with those I love was almost a hurried affair. One of my sons was in NZ with his grandparents for Christmas and the other was off to spend the week with his dad. As soon as I was alone I slept. Not like normal sleep … I was unconscious for seven hours a day and night and I hardly had the energy to breathe. Four days in I decided it wasn’t simply a case of over-exertion. So I did a blood test and the moment the results landed on my doctor’s desk I received a phone call.

I had an extreme case of hypothyroid, with results so through the roof that my doctor told me that I should be in a coma.

So, this is partly why it’s taken me a while to write this blog. Apparently (in fact evidently) my brain had been ‘aged’ as a result and it has taken months to recover cognitive function. I had six weeks off work so, as you will see, we have a lot of catching up to do.

Most of my time has been spent painting my favourite school, Tweed Heads South. Why is it my favourite school? It’s very much about the people. Principal Ian Reeson trusts my creative leanings and also guides me in subtle ways that have improved my painting. His happy staff are appreciative and thoughtful. The students are curious, funny, unspoilt and grateful. They really look into the murals and ask questions and want to explore the landscapes and subject matter. The two men who have really helped me are groundsman extraordinaire Jim (who has been mentioned in previous a blog) and Mark who keeps the school sparkling puts some sparkle into the start and end of my day.

So, since our last chat, I have painted THS’s library space with giant 3-D books and a scene from the owl and the pussy cat. The entrance depicts a landscape pre-european settlement with a family collecting and cooking pippis on the Tweed Coast. Around the corner is a scene of bees: native blue banded and teddy bear bees cooperating with European honey bees in the pollination of native medicinal plants. This whole image is about healing. Flying above are migratory birds, symbolic of borderless lands.

The pre-school now has a water tank adorned with humpback whales and turtles.

In March I painted Merrimac School’s Centenary Mural. A time when children rode barefoot on horseback to school that is now the epicentre of a metropolis. It’s so important that students understand the permanence of change.

The jewel in this years’ crown so far has been a commission for a beautiful heritage building in Bangalow’s main Street. Commissioned by the Burke family, this mural is epic. It is called Past, Present and Future and exposes Bangalow’s time-line from the days of the Big Scrub Rainforest, to it’s clearing and up to the present day. Looming large are the Big Scrub plants and birds, suggesting that they will once again, in time, reclaim the land back.

The Federal Tennis Club commissioned the next mural. Federal is a small but vibrant village in the Byron hinterland. It attracts an eclectic mix of folk. The painting shows lost tennis balls in possession of the creatures that occupy the parkland.

And now I am back at Tweed Heads South having painted rainforest on a long wall. The wall leads to the office entrance and was so dark and bleak. It now sports a medley of rainforest creatures with a backdrop of Big Scrub plant species and a lilac and primrose dawn sky. The most significant aspect of this mural is the inquisitive response from the children. They want to explore the rainforest, to see the extraordinary plants like the prickly alixyr, the pink trumpet vine and the blue fig. I’ve told them to nag their parents because Lamington National Park is within spitting distance. The canteen annex harbours satin bower birds and my favourite ever creature the thylacine. They know they won’t find that one in real life but they are now acutely aware that if they venture into the forest they’re highly likely to see the bower birds paraphernalia.

This weekend (starting tomorrow) I will be painting a billabong on the floor of the canteen. Jim prepared the space artfully, etching and priming the floor. The canteen is operational for most of the week, hence my off-piste landing there tomorrow. So … while the cats are away this mouse will play so when they return on Monday they can pounce and discover that they can walk on water. That might not be the case when they find themselves in Lamington National Park. But I bet they’ll enjoy getting down and dirty with their other mother.

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Samantha Wortelhock, Mural Artist and Visionary Painter

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