Hand-painted with a brush over just 25 days, artist Yvonne East’s 130sqm mural snaking up a wall of the rebuilt Her Majesty’s Theatre is a striking tribute to both theatre tradition and South Australian flora.
Artist reaches new heights with Her Majesty’s Theatre mural
While most people were unwinding over the Christmas and New Year holidays, Yvonne East was hard at work painting her way up the northern wall of Her Majesty’s Theatre.
She started painting on December 18 and by the time she finished on January 11 she had spent more than 200 hours on the project and taken just one day off – Christmas Day, which she spent with her family at Port Elliot.
In painting her 130sqm mural design – a bouquet of South Australian native plant species, including blue gum, purple cockatoo and beaked hakea, commissioned by the Adelaide Festival Centre as part of the $66 million redevelopment of the theatre – she also discovered the joys of scissor lifts and boom lifts.
“I do have a head for heights but I haven’t done a lot of work on big machinery like that; it’s more about trust in machinery and building that up,” says Yvonne, who, ironically, is also currently studying psychology and the concept of exposure theory.
For the first part of her mural, she painted from a scissor lift. Then, as she got higher up the wall, a boom lift (cherry picker) was required. It had a grille in the bottom where, every time she put a paint brush down, she could see the more than 20-metre drop to the bottom.
“There was what I called the hour of terror; that first hour while I was getting used to it,” she says of her early days working on the project. “But I started low and just worked up and up, so really I acclimatised myself to it, and by the last week I could go right to the top without worrying about it at all… so I can say that exposure therapy works!”
Yvonne, who was born in Meningie and spent most of her life in South Australia until moving to Sydney six years ago, has an impressive resume as an artist, with her portrait of Chief Justice Susan Kiefel acquired last year by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. Her works have been shortlisted for major art prizes – including the Archibald and the Dobell Drawing Prize – and she has completed a number of other murals, such as the one on the wall of the Adelaide Aquatic Centre.
She first exhibited at the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Artspace Gallery in 2012. She also has a love of musical theatre and is especially fond of Her Majesty’s Theatre, where she saw her first musical, A Chorus Line, as a 16-year-old.
“As her relationship with the centre continues to develop so does her art,” Adelaide Festival Centre senior exhibitions curator Charissa Davies says of Yvonne.
“She seemed the perfect fit to create such an incredible mural to celebrate the new Her Majesty’s Theatre. What could be more fitting than a bouquet of native South Australian flowers to celebrate the new stunning performing arts venue?”
Yvonne’s concept for the mural, which is on a rear wall of Her Majesty’s Theatre and visible via Rowlands Place, was inspired partly by a theatre tradition.
“I was thinking that at the end of the performance the lady gets a big bouquet of flowers, so I thought how about if I do a bouquet of flowers so it’s like at the end of the show; being at the back of the building, it’s like a thank-you to her Majesty’s Theatre herself.
“So it’s a bouquet of flowers for the grand old dame, which is Her Majesty’s Theatre because she’s so beloved by South Australians.
“With the flowers, I could have gone with lilies or roses, but one thing I hope that people get out of the mural is the fascinating shapes, the incredible intricacies and the interesting qualities that you can only find in South Australia; our native flowers are so interesting.
“I think it gives the work a little bit of an edge as well… for example, there’s an orchid called a nodding greenhood that looks a little bit kind of alien-esque. So maybe when people are walking through Mount Lofty (Botanic) Garden they can see a nodding greenhood and say, ‘that’s a native South Australian orchid’, because they’re beautiful, special kind of flowers.”
In addition to the native flowers, the mural also features three South Australian butterflies: the fiery jewel, common grass blue and wattle blue.
The unusual shape of the painting was decided by Cox Architecture, which designed the redevelopment of Her Majesty’s Theatre, and was inspired by the shape of the theatre curtains.
“On the parts where I haven’t painted on, there’s this kind of wavy shape, and that’s the curtain being drawn,” Yvonne says. “I thought that fits in well with the bouquet of flowers… the two concepts intertwine.”
Part of her brief was that the mural be calming and soothing, because residents in the adjacent apartments look onto it from their balconies.
This was also a reason why it had to be painted with a brush. While spray enamel is more commonly used with outdoor murals, the proximity of the apartments meant this would have created an occupational health and safety problem.
Yvonne acknowledges that hand-painting such a large work in a tight timeframe was taxing. However, because it is located in front of an emergency exit, it had to be completed during a period when there were no performances in the theatre. She finished just a couple of days before the stage show Bluey’s Big Play opened.
“It was a kind of lonely experience,” she says of painting the mural, “and it was incredibly physically and mentally challenging to keep going, going, going, but it’s one of the best experiences and I’m so grateful I got the opportunity to do it.”
Charissa Davies says seeing the mural come to fruition over 25 days in the summer holidays was a fascinating experience.
“The way Yvonne used only a grid, paint and paintbrushes to create a mural on such a large-scale, over 24 metres high, was amazing to watch.”
The rebuild of Her Majesty’s Theatre was completed in June last year, and the Adelaide Festival Centre will soon be releasing new dates for public tours in 2021. For details of these and upcoming shows at the theatre, visit its website. You can see more of Yvonne East’s work on her website.
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