Artist finds Babylon in Bendigo

Do not let the black clothing fool you. Fiona Smith is all colour. That mural she’s standing in front of? That’s her inner world, broken free. That’s the King of Babylon, riding a giraffe. It’s Bendigo’s latest Instagram-worthy work of art, on an historic brick wall of the city’s newest bar. “It was all I’d think about and dream about,” says the La Trobe creative arts alumna of the larger-than-life task.

The commission happened after Fiona’s former work colleagues began refurbishing this narrow building along Pall Mall as the Babylon lounge and garden bar. They’d always admired Fiona’s work, so asked her to contribute to the design.

“I thought they were just going to hang one of the paintings I had kicking around but then they showed me the wall. I just thought, oh my god, I’m going to do it,” she says. “I liked the idea of people with animal heads in this crazy, different world, which when you’re in a bar and little bit drunk, makes sense.”

It took Fiona almost three months on her days off from her hospitality job to complete the work. It’s true to her style and colour palette, honed during her years in the La Trobe art rooms when she was in her early 30s.

Fiona says going to uni as a mature-age student remains one of the best things she’s done. “I’d done art my whole life and I’d been in the Bendigo Art Society since I was 19 but I felt a bit stuck and I thought there had to be something more. I wanted to break out and learn more techniques, discover new ideas and meet people who were also into art.

“I was nervous,” she says of her first day of class. “I drove past La Trobe five times before I went in.” She was relieved to discover mature-age students made up three quarters of the cohort at that time.

Apart from the friendships made and time spent immersed in art, she laughs the cheap coffee and 50cent ANZAC biscuits in the Student Union were also highlights. (Can we have those bikkies back please?)

“I knew it was something I’d look back on and be so thankful I did it,” she says. “I just had the most fun. To study art full time was so special. I was like a kid in a candy shop.

“We were told by the lecturers that it was really hard to make a career as an artist and in my mind it was always something I was going to do just for myself anyway, rather than get out of uni and push myself as an artist. I’ve always worked in hospitality but as I’m getting older that’s getting harder. I feel like it’s now or never to pull my finger out and make a career in arts.”

Fiona had been in primary and secondary school classes with two former Bendigo boys-turned-children’s author/illustrators, Nick Bland (The Very Cranky Bear) and Aaron Blabey (Pig the Pug).

“I watched an interview with Aaron Blabey about being a children’s book illustrator and he said he had the best job in the world and that it didn’t even feel like working and I thought, that’s what I want.

“At uni (then-lecturer) Geoff Hocking always said my work was more illustrative and at the time I was offended by that, I wanted to be an ‘artist’, but the more I thought about it I thought he was right, and that’s also the style of art I’ve always liked. So I’ve started writing and illustrating a children’s book.” She says it’s a busy life, working full time, raising her son and being a practicing artist.

Since finishing the mural, Fiona has received queries about other commissions. She says she’d definitaley consider other large-scale work like the Babylon mural. She loved the process of making it and appreciates the exposure it’s given her art.

“Out of all the work I’ve done this is the piece most people will see, so I was really nervous, especially on the opening night. It felt like a really personal thing, like inviting people into your house.”

Playful, thoughtful, bold and quirky; being in the mural’s shadow is kind of like company with Fiona. What a treat.

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