22 February 2024

A spectacular mural high in the sky takes its cue from Canberra's mountains

| Genevieve Jacobs
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woman painting mural

Lymesmith at work on the Cento mural on Northbourne Avenue. Photo: Dale Wowk.

For a long month, Canberra artist Lymesmith (Sonia van de Haar) spent her workdays on a wobbling swing stage, painting not an interior wall or mural but the side of an entire nine-storey building.

The building at 100 Northbourne Avenue, previously the Pacific Suites, has been transformed into apartments called Cento, set to open soon.

Rather than leaving a towering internal courtyard wall blank, the developers contacted Lymesmith and commissioned the biggest work she’d ever completed, 20 metres from top to bottom, bisected by a glass walkway.

Almost all apartments have views to Mt Ainslie, Black Mountain or both, and the mountains were the key to this large, rhythmic, abstract project on a vast canvas.

“You don’t think about the mountains while you’re driving along Northbourne, but when I looked at a map and plotted the topography, I saw that a line from the summit of Mt Ainslie to the summit of Black Mountain bisects this building, right bang in the middle”, she says.

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Working across the slopes of both sites, she meticulously documented plants, ground, bark, leaves and flowers, curating a selection of colours that would build up a specific and distinctive character for each side of the mural.

“Colour is so relative and the relationships between colours are critical. That’s why nature is always such an inexhaustible source of information – everything you look at, there could be 100 colours just in one leaf”, she says.

“I didn’t want to make a big repetitive work with 10 or 15 colours that would look like wallpaper. I wanted to change the colours level by level, to draw people’s eyes up as the shapes and the colours shift”.

Wall mural

The sun moves across an upper section of the Cento mural. Photo: Dale Wowk.

Beginning on the southern side, colours came from the base of Black Mountain. Different vegetation communities suggested dark greens, moving to the grey and greens of lichen, then jasper and other stones showing through. On the Mt Ainslie side, the exposed rocks and the colours of bark, suggesting flesh and warmth to the artist, emerged.

At the top of the works, abstract shapes in intense blue hint at abstracted glimpses of sky through the tree canopy or the curve of a branch.

But don’t imagine for a moment this was all spontaneous. Lymesmith and fellow artists Jo Breneger and Leia Sidery were 20 metres in the air wearing hard hats, safety harnesses and hi-vis vests as they executed a meticulously planned piece of work.

The huge walls were divided into a grid of 100 rectangles, with fixed weighted lines delineating the spaces. The team constantly checked and measured, using multiple templates to ensure a crisp result on the rough surface and referring to the numbered plan taped to the stage.

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The painters worked on up to three rows at a time, juggling 12 to 16 tins of paint from New Zealand specialists Resene, and calculating how much paint was needed, when and where. Deciding when to clean the rollers was a strategic call.

The painting itself was an intense process – on hot days, the glare from the white wall was blinding, and the physicality of detailed work high in the air took its toll on all three (Sonia’s partner cooked for them all and comprised the ground crew).

The mural has 100 different colours, and Lymesmith says she enjoys trying to make the colour logic work across a huge and complex scale that would interact with the elements and the building’s residents.

“I hope people who live in this building will watch it change throughout the day as the light moves across it. This building is an adaptive re-use and colour can be such a powerful way to bring new energy and atmosphere into a space and signify change.

“It creates a new identity”.

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