Award-winning artist and building designer Kirsten Walsh began making her mark in Geelong West during COVID-19 with colourful murals in restaurants and on outdoor walls. She shares her passion for art and her Jan Juc home with LUKE VOOGT.
Tell us about you…
I grew up in Perth, and moved to Jan Juc in 2010 with my husband when I was pregnant with the first of our two daughters. We had talked about moving east for a while and we both loved the rural aspect of the Surf Coast.
I was born in Dandenong and my parents live in Tasmania, so there were a lot of reasons to give it a go over here. We have family in Jan Juc and my husband loves to surf. We decided we would have a gap year and spent two months travelling across Australia in a 4WD visiting Port Lincoln, Robe and Mount Gambier. We were moving to a coastal area, so we hugged the coastline.
How did your love of art begin?
As a child I would often win the colour-in competitions at school. My dad was a very successful airbrush illustrator and graphic designer in the ’80s. What computers can now do, he used to do by hand with markers, pens, an airbrush machine and other equipment. I loved going to his office – it always had a certain smell – the inks and the markers. My husband says, “you remember that kid at school who could draw the fruit bowl, that’s my wife.”
But I never really saw it that way. I was just able to draw what I saw – there was no ego attached to what I could do. Kids in class were like, “how do you do it?” and I was like, “I don’t know.”
I still feel the same way about my art: I can see something and know how to draw it. My parents allowed me to be creative and dad gave me a lot of instruction. My intention was to become a graphic designer like dad when I grew up.
How did that go?
I studied graphic design for about a year and half and I loved the photography, illustration and art history. But I really didn’t enjoy the aspects around design, lettering and how to put an article layout together.
After that I worked in silver service hospitality, where I met my husband.
My mum always said, “when you meet the person you’ll know,” and I just knew. But we didn’t marry until nine years later!
We travelled to Europe when we were 25. We were trying to decide what we wanted to do – we didn’t want to work in bars our whole lives.
We decided we would get qualifications when we got back. The other aspect I was very good at in school was technical drawing, so I decided I’d have a go at building design.
I became building designer and qualified draftsperson in a home renovation company – I worked in that for way too long.
I was very successful – I was good at the drawing side – but I can’t ever say I loved it.
You had to learn everything there was to know about building a house from top to bottom – materials, permits, planning and design.
Did that come in handy when you bought a house in Jan Juc?
Yes! When we bought our house, the bones were great but it needed a lot of work, so we renovated straightaway. It’s a weatherboard property and was quite eclectic back then.
I drew the plans, liaised with the builder and managed the project. We completely gutted the upstairs area. We completely stripped down the downstairs bathroom and made into a bathroom-laundry.
There was no garden. Ten years later, we have a lush overgrown garden with fruit trees, a nice lawn, palms and, last year, we built vegie boxes.
We did what everyone did during COVID – visited Bunnings and bought vegetables.
We’ve just freshly painted the outside of the house so it’s all white. It needed a facelift and I really love that Byron Bay, Palm Springs beachy feel. It looks amazing.
It still needs a few things done but you do what you can, when you can.
What do you love about your home?
It’s deceiving from the front, how spacious it feels inside. It’s a very light-filled house.
The ground level has beautiful high ceilings and a really large square window looking out the back. The rear of the house drops by about a metre, so it’s quite elevated and we get nice breezes. The front has a veranda which we enjoy sitting on with a glass of wine, especially when the sun is out. We’ve got these really groovy 1970s chairs out there with nice cushions on them.
The upstairs area has a fourth room, which I labelled ‘art room’ on my original plans. It has a window looking out across Jan Juc. It’s an amazing view.
When I started drawing again, it became my art studio. I worked up there full-time for three years.
How did you get back into art?
After being a young mum, I craved some time for myself – you give everything to being a mum. In 2006 I went on a month-long holiday to Italy with my Jan Juc cousin, which completely reignited my love of art.
I loved the precision and realism of their beautiful Renaissance art. There’s so much inspiration everywhere around you.
I had been told “Kirsty, you need to start drawing again” but I didn’t see how I could make a career out of it without going back and studying, which is not something I wanted to do. I was working in a little Italian cafe when the same cousin asked me to draw her dog.
I bought a pencil set, set my table up upstairs and, based on some YouTube tutorials and podcasts I had been following, learned to use pencils again. I shared the drawing on Facebook and everyone loved it. People didn’t know that I could draw.
I just got a few messages like, “I‘d really love it if you could do a drawing of my granddaughter, or I would love you to draw my dog too – how much would it cost?”
So I would do them, and post my progress and the finished work online. Eventually I had enough people inquiring that I thought I could earn more from drawing alone.
My husband was doing very well at work at the time and said, “why don’t you just leave the cafe, focus on the drawing requests you’ve got, and it might go somewhere.”
They were all dogs, I just sort of fell into that.
I have two staffies of my own. My oldest, Boof, is 18-years-and-two-months-old. He must have a heart like Phar Lap!
How did you get into painting murals?
A couple of years into drawing I came across Ashmore Arts. I wanted to branch out and do bigger work. It was a big financial commitment taking on the bigger studio but my productivity has doubled working there – you’ve just got to jump in do it. If the space is bigger the ideas grow bigger.
Earlier, when I was doing the dog drawings, I would take them into Bells Fine Art to scan so I would have a digital copy.
But my relationship with them started to evolve and grow when studio director Belinda White approached me to do a mural at Bakers Delight in Geelong West. I don’t paint and I had never done a mural before. There was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing about that for a few months – I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I nearly turned it down.
But Belinda encouraged me and once got I over the self-criticism, I started researching. I found a heap of amazing mural artists online and thought, “I can do that”.
It was really gloomy around the world during COVID-19, so I thought it was the perfect opportunity to create something happy-looking.
What’s next for you and your home?
The next big plan is to do a mural on a beautiful big limestone wall on the edge of my property and the side of my neighbour’s garage.
It’s crying out for a mural. They’re stoked for me to do it. I can add to it, change it or cover it up and do another one in future. I have another mural coming up, in collaboration with a primary school out Werribee way.
I do a lot of large graphite portraits, so I’m working on a new piece in the studio and looking towards an exhibition of my work.