This month marks the third anniversary of the installation of Ten Dicta For Young Women Who Are Artists at Royal Lane, 231 – 233 Bourke Street, Melbourne CBD. Ten Dicta... is the first large-scale public artwork I have ever undertaken, as well as the first derived directly from my own published non-fiction writing. It was commissioned for the City of Melbourne by Robert Doyle, the Right Honourable Lord Mayor.
During the installation of the artwork I used Twitter to create an abbreviated diary of the process. The following is a lightly edited collation of my 140-character-notes.
30 October, Melbourne
I met Robert Doyle, Melbourne's Lord Mayor, yesterday. We sat and talked in his office. Before I left I signed his guest book. Boris Johnson's signature was at the top of the page.
1 November, Brisbane
I always wanted to make big artworks the size of external walls. Permanent art, not street art. Finally, I'm getting my chance. I wake at 6am to work on logistics for my mural and do more research. A few intense hours later and I've solved the potential problems. I'm less fazed by them than I used to be. I guess it's an upside of my perfect storm of madness, bankruptcy and the death of my father.
5 November, Brisbane
I book flights and a hotel for my two-week stay in Melbourne. I'm bringing Kirsten. It's her first time in the city. When I met the councillors I told them my assistant is a petite punk. They were silent but looked pleased. I suspect that deep down everyone loves rebellion.
6 November, Brisbane
Late at night I exchange texts with Kirsten about work. My studio has never had standard hours and everyone who works with me understands.
9 November, Brisbane
I buy more test pots of paint to work out an exact shade of grey for the mural. A paint company's description of grey: Trojan, Stack, Gunsmoke, Scarpa Flow and Silver Chalice.
18 November, Brisbane
Doris Lessing died yesterday. No other writer affected and shaped me like her. My favourite collection of short stories by Doris Lessing is A Man and Two Women. I read an essay by Suzuko Mamoto on sexual freedom and psychological independence in Doris Lessing's short stories. It's titled Doris Lessing: A Review of Four Key Short Stories from the 1960s. This sentence resonates with me: "If women seek psychological independence, it is more important for them to establish their own identity than to have sexual freedom."
Later, I print out full size letters for my mural. They'll be used as templates during the layout. My elderly whippet, Cairo, has had enough of being my companion on late nights at the studio. He retreats to sleep in the car.
19 November, Brisbane / Melbourne
Sleep eludes me. I catch a few hours between tweaking the layout of my mural and poring over logistics. Then it's time to go to the airport. I travel light: a North Face duffel full of lots of equipment and a few clothes, my laptop bag stuffed with the same. Early morning in the transit lounge, I'm still refining the mural layout. I seat Kirsten between me and other people and spend the flight making notes.
On the way from the airport to the city, the taxi drives under Melbourne International Gateway. It's a sculpture made up of a row of 39 red steel beams and a 70 metre yellow beam at a 30 degree angle over the road like a boom gate frozen at half open. We check into the serviced apartment and immediately set up for work.
In the afternoon we walk to the site and I check the wall. It's clean, with a fresh tag. I like an opportunist. Besides, my primer-sealer-undercoat-stainblocker covers everything. My very early work was influenced by graffiti writing, among other things. But nothing I do could be considered graffiti or street art.
20 November, Melbourne
We arrive on site early. Night workers ending their shifts drive past, singing along to Don't Worry Be Happy, by Bobby McFeririn.
I want to make bigger works, faster. So instead of painting I focus on managing the mural project. I'm fortunate to have found a great crew. Between them, Martin Boyle and Bernard Heuvel have 85 years experience in traditional sign writing. They will paint most of the mural. Carla Gottgens films the mural progress from across the street as the undercoat-primer-stain blocker is applied.
I set up a contemporary artist's portable office: milk crate and laptop. I write while the first coat of black is painted. I can tell by the way Martin holds a brush that he knows how to paint well. It's like an extension of his fingers.
21 November, Melbourne
At Council House I take the elevator to the arts section so I can recharge my computer and smartphone. The councillors find me a desk and power points, show me the kitchen and bathrooms and return to their work. The soundtrack to the arts floor of Council House is a soft cacophony of voices, phones and email alerts. Kirsten sends me photo updates of the mural progress while I'm not on site.
The painters leave for the day and we hang around after the first coat of black is finished so that no-one touches the wet paint.
Back at the serviced apartment I work for a couple of hours. We walk a block away to eat home-style Italian and drink granitas at a long table in the kitchen of Pellegrini's on Bourke Street. I've missed being around Italians. I love their hot-blooded way of doing everything, including making food.
Late at night Kirsten files receipts at her desk as I finally abandon mine.
22 November, Melbourne
I've spent the last few days focussing on nothing but the mural. All key decisions about executing it are made during this stage of production. Three coats of black later, the surface of the wall is ready. Martin and Bernie mark the wall with chalk lines for more text.
Painting the words for my mural has begun, but it's only the first coat. The shape of the letters will be further refined during final stages of painting. In the evening I read the City of Melbourne's Press Release for my mural, titled Art as advice: Ten Dicta for Young Women Who Are Artists. I came to Melbourne as a young artist to prove myself. It's fitting to return here to install the first of my mature works.
24 November, Melbourne
The painters Martin and Bernie joke that my mural is titled Ten Dicta... because I am a dictator. We laugh because it's true. My studio is never a democracy. It's a benign dictatorship. Making all of the decisions (especially creative decisions) is my job.
A few people have asked why I don't have women painting my mural. Feminism doesn't mean excluding men. I wanted the best, most experienced painters to work with me on this project. Not many women would have begun sign writing 40 years ago. I am mercenary when it comes to my work. I care only that artisans have the fine skills needed and will work to my requirements. The most experienced artisans are primarily men. It's up to women to change that, now that we have the opportunities to do so.
I lean on the gutter, adapting my layout drawings as the install progresses. Through the day I talk often with Martin, who's leading the paint team. We discuss all potential changes before painting.
It starts raining. Martin holds a sheet of corrugated plastic above the lettering he just finished to protect the paint as it dries. Kirsten takes refuge from the Melbourne weather in the back of the painting van.
The first two of my Ten Dicta For Young Women Who Are Artists are up. I walk to a bookstore and pick up a copy of The Best Australian Essays 2013, published by Black Inc. It features my essay, Broken. It's strange to see my name on the Contents page alongside authors I studied at school.
25 November, Melbourne
More of my Ten Dicta For Young Women Who Are Artists are up. Women are beginning to respond to my mural. They stop and smile or call out to me. We are bonded, even at a distance, by shared experience. Young men also stop. A musician tells me which dicta resonate with him and why. He looks visibly moved. I don't know why I am surprised. Others stop to exclaim at Martin and Bernie's painting technique. It's smooth and fast with crisp hard edges. I'm asked if I will paint my signature. No. I don't need to claim my own work or prove my painting skills. I've done both already.
The painters and I are still adapting my mural design for the surface of the wall. For now, I need to focus on the last section of text.
Each day more people come to watch the mural in progress. I'm trying to keep the crowd to a minimum while we work.
30 November, Melbourne
I work on the layout with Martin, adjusting spacing so the text won't be intersected by gaps where windows used to be. We use pre-cut letters (kept in a bucket), white chinagraph and a tape measure. I love watching Martin and Bernie's brush skills in action.
The final text and my signature – based on my handwriting – are laid out by tracing using chalk. I like the residue it leaves behind. Bernie paints the first coat of the signature. I paint the top coat and nuances. My name is painted hard-edged and pseudo-loose with painstakingly applied drip-marks.
We wash the guiding lines of chalk and chinagraph of the wall with mild, soapy water. Then rinse. It's taken ten days of solid work by the whole crew to install the mural. I could never have done it alone.
Late at night, anti-graffiti coating is applied to the finished artwork. It's milky when wet but dries clear. I fool around taking photos with a slow shutter speed while the clear top-coat dries.
1 December, Melbourne
My sincere thanks to Robert Doyle, the Right Honourable Lord Mayor of Melbourne, and everyone involved in organising and installing Ten Dicta For Young Women Artists. You were the perfect crew. Special thanks to Martin Boyle of Flair For Signs and Bernard Heuvel for their highly skilled work on my mural. You can see more examples of Martin hand-painted signwriting at @flairforsigns on Instagram. My entire mural was hand painted. No stencils, no spray paint. Just rollers for the background and brushes for the text.
All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.
― Jean-Luc Godard (But a girl with a paint brush is better.)
Women should take note - the writing's on the wall, an article by Chris Johnston, is on page three of The Sunday Age, with a photo by Angela Wylie. I'm thrilled that the article was printed among "news" rather than the art pages. It means it will reach more readers. It was also published in the Canberra Times and Brisbane Times.
2 December, Melbourne
I walked by the mural this morning to see fresh tags. I'm unfazed. It's protected with anti-graffiti coating and will be cleaned regularly. After having instructed others to "break the rules" I can't complain when they do, even if it's by tagging my mural.
3 December, Melbourne
My mural is now pristine again (thanks to Melbourne City Council, who will be maintaining it). We see a mother taking a photograph of her son in front of "Break the rules." I love it.
For our last afternoon I am Kirsten's assistant as she adds to Melbourne's laneway street art. I don't want to leave. But we pack our bags and catch a taxi to the airport anyway. I pick up a copy of Keith Richard's biography, Life. Kirsten reads and I work as we wait for our flight. The end of one journey, beginning of another.