“Community consultation has influenced me as an artist – it has been an unexpected consequence”. Tom Civil
Melbourne public art is a major tourist draw-card with visitors spending hours in the inner-city suburbs photographing artworks that could rival Archibald Prize entries. Suburbs further from the centre don’t miss out. Mural artists like Tom Civil are experiencing a popularity they couldn’t have dreamed of ten years ago. But what happens when the artist gets drawn to a different ‘canvas’?
I caught up with Tom as he was prepping a private commission, the façade of Farouk’s Olive on High Street, Thornbury. He appeared quietly confident yet humble in his flannelette shirt, with an ease that hinted at long periods spent in the country. This is the mundane, non-creative part of his job and he often gets confused for a commercial painter. But hang around more than a few hours, and you’ll see, his skills would be wasted on pelmets and architraves.
He eventually added stylised olive branches and his signature stick folk to the wall surrounds of the bar windows. He likened them to those other famous bush-inspired characters, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie but his version of sprites seem more nimble. “I started out doing stick figures because I wasn’t confident with drawing” he said. They are two-dimensional characters with stick legs and arms, walking, running, squatting and lazing. Some wear hats, some ride bicycles and others play drums or trumpets. But they are almost ant-like in their dotting around the wall canvases, busy with their activities and tiny by comparison to the natural surrounds they inhabit.
On this day, Tom was working just metres away from the Darebin Council commissioned mural, The Wanderers. Familiar monarch butterflies flit around gum branches and leaves on the side wall of the Crisalida Child, Adolescent, Adult and Family Therapy service. Look closer though, and you are enchanted to see little stick figures, his “stick folk” also hanging around in the branches. The chrysalises and butterflies are a gentle reference to the work of transformation going on behind the wall. His work has been sought after by a number of local kindergartens and other places of learning at all ends of the spectrum.
Deakin University also commissioned a mural in 2014 that sits opposite the Student Centre covering a “boring concrete wall” as described by Deakin University on Twitter. The University of Life is hidden from the main promenade, but large groups of stick folk meet in circles to make their presence felt in the student services precinct. There are no pens, no technology, no books, but due to their context, they must all be students.
Just as authors sometimes manage to trick their friends into thinking they’ve portrayed them in books, the skill of a mural artist is in capturing the sense of a place or community so that anyone wandering past finds a representation of themselves in the work.
Tom sees his creations as fun fairies, characters from a spirit world, yet even in their whimsical environments, they seem to speak of some serious issues: environment, community, inclusion and identity. It is precisely for this reason that he is called on to undertake these murals around Melbourne, and crossing town I visited his latest commission.
Jacob Stammers has been running the Pocket Café, a little hole-in-the-wall coffee shop on Melrose Street for four and a half years. He asked a street artist friend where he might find someone to paint a mural opposite his little shop. When the City of Melbourne also got involved they suggested the same person, Tom Civil.
Early in 2016 the community held a Really Good Day. Residents gathered and talked about their ideas for lightening up the drab tunnel between shops that leads into the housing estate. Jacob said that the rainbow that was drawn in chalk a year earlier, was painted over by Tom in the weeks during the Marriage Equality Survey.
Yet the rainbow is a universal symbol. “Kids love rainbows,” says Tom. Kites, banners, dogs and bicycles all join the rainbow in a hillside scene that melds into the driveway onto the estate, “every element that was suggested by the community became incorporated in the final product”, said Jacob. He said many people stop to look at the mural, and it has lifted a previously neglected space.
Community commissions can be complex and involve consultations with council, residents and local traders extending over many months, if not years. While Tom enjoys the feedback he gets while out in public doing a mural, the organisation and consultation required can be tiring when balancing the creative aspects of painting. He was happy to put this on hold to work on his Life Together: New ‘Stick Folk’ Stories exhibition at No Vacancy Gallery, QV Building, Melbourne during April.
For this exhibition Tom has exchanged paintbrushes, rollers and spray cans around the city for drawing with pencils and paper, etching tools and lino in his Collingwood studio. It necessitates travelling an inward, more solitary path, developing his ideas and building a body of work using the same stick-folk and natural themes in limited edition prints. These are more intimate versions of his pubic murals, and he’s relishing the new possibilities, “I personally think that my prints are much better than my murals. But that might be because it is rare to do murals purely for yourself, and you’re always needing to please people”. He has achieved listing with Port Jackson Press, so he seems to have a realistic view of the value of his work.
There are many aspects he enjoys about creating smaller pieces of art, “Print-making is an accessible art form – it is multiples, one of twenty, not a stand-alone expensive artwork. I love that thought of my work going out there, getting out there”. He produces work in many price-ranges, “people like small things, finding special spaces in their homes”. In the studio he also enjoys pushing past the edges of his creative practice.
Tom found a stack of old mirrors in a second hand shop and it prompted work with a new medium. The drawback is getting glass dust everywhere, but the process of etching on mirror has opened up new horizons, “As soon as I finished that mirror, I wanted to do another one because I hadn’t mastered the craft.” He has also begun working with another new technique, oil-stick painting, and he seemed to still be deciding whether he was happy to have these go on show. Perhaps it is his humble, self-taught artistic beginnings that keep him experimenting, yet also leave him uncertain about their merit.
Tom Civil was born in Waverley, Sydney but at the time his family were living on a farm out of Willow Tree, near Tamworth until he was about two years old. Until he was five, his family “did the farming thing” near Walcha, then spent 5 years in Uralla in an old run-down hospital/nursing home with a derelict pool and tennis court. The cheap $40K price tag was said to be because it was haunted.
When he was 10 years old, his parents split and he moved with his mum and brother, Ned, to live in Bronte, the beachside suburb of Sydney. He is unashamedly a “city kid with a country heart”. Some of his best memories were the trips he made with his brother back to visit his dad in Uralla each school holidays. And maybe the freedom, space and ability to run off by himself have prepared him well for the life of an artist. He has taken inspiration from his dad, who, having worked in the disability sector, also writes and is an artist who makes sculptures with “beautiful junk” sourced from the tip and elsewhere.
He credits his school days with being the type of person who can talk with anyone, starting at Rocky River Public School in Uralla then Bronte Public School, then with financial support from his grandparents, the private boys school, Cranbook School. His mother, a psychologist and filmmaker, supported his move in year 11 to the Australian Independent International School that was established in the 1970s, but has now disappeared under a freeway near Macquarie University. This was the beginning of social activism for Tom. Students were on first-name basis with teachers and all could contribute to assemblies.
After school, he moved to Newcastle where he completed a degree in Environmental Science in 1999. He was living in share houses and immersed in environmental activism and independent media by this time, and had also just met his partner, Lou.
It was Lou’s connections to Melbourne as well as visiting for the World Economic Forum Protest, S11 with a bunch of friends in a van, which prompted the couple to move. It wasn’t a long-term plan, but they have lived in Melbourne ever since. Tom got involved in the local activist, street and stencil-artist scene. He designed posters, flyers and worked on graphic design and the art section of the independent publication, The Paper. He published political poster series’, zine anthologies learning this trade working with other artists.
About 10 years ago, he began to be approached to work on larger community commissions. He loved the idea that his art might take up more space and be seen by more people. His first large-scale commission was 3CR’s Collingwood studios. It was a challenging brief, artistically representing the diverse membership of the radio station community with their different stories. Still finding his style, he settled on the stick figures, “I like that the stick folk people they are so simple and have their own language so that lots of different people can connect with them.”
It is the ephemeral nature of the street art form that interests Tom. Whether it exists for months or just a day, it isn’t meant to last, like a sand mandala that the monks spend huge amounts of time making, that’s just part of it. “You get used to people telling you they hate it or it’s rubbish. You need a thick skin because people paint over it”. But it is this transience of life that Tom knows personally as well.
Tom’s brother Ned was a fellow street artist who shared many of his passions. They were very close. You get the impression they ‘got up to all sorts of mischief’ together. They worked together as The Evil Brothers, but also apart – Ned in Sydney and Tom in Melbourne. Ned also spent several years at the remote Aboriginal community, Warmun, two hours from Kununurra, working in the art and youth centres. Tom visited Ned over the years and later did mural projects in the community, “I couldn’t have done that without Ned”.
Ned had found out when he was 21 that he had cystic fibrosis, an unusually late diagnosis. “He thought a lot more about his art. He was a bit like an old man, he always thought he was going to die at 30”. In the month before he died in 2010, the brothers drove to Alice Springs to mount an exhibition of giant cardboard cutouts, playing with light and shadow puppets, like an installation they’d done at Redfern in Carriageworks. Ned was sick the whole time, and found out he had bowel cancer.
The end of Ned’s life was full of frustrations for Tom, “I wanted to pick him up and carry himhome out of hospital … It was like seeing myself die because he was so similar to me – like being at my own funeral”. For six months Tom couldn’t look at a spray can or pencil. The loss of his best mate and accomplice was devastating but when he finally started drawing again, he couldn’t stop. “I started to look at death in my art in a beautiful way, the ancestors are always with you”.
Tom says his loss gave him more direction in his own art and gave him confidence to do the work he wanted to do. He drew more. Whereas before he made more collages and modified images, now he’d found the confidence to create from scratch in his mind and made a lot better art. It is a bittersweet realisation though, “But I’d really rather make really s**t art and have Ned alive”.
Tom’s work holds many symbols of his childhood and family, the New England landscape, the childhood homes in Sydney, and memorial objects but he has found an acceptance of this now, “I’m not embarrassed to celebrate the things I enjoyed in childhood.”