Transforming St Kilda’s trash into works of art

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By: Jo Smith

Julie’s been up to something…

Julie Shiels is a St Kilda based visual artist, sculptor and photographer- amongst other things. You might not have seen her, but you may have inadvertently seen her work on old pieces of furniture left on nature strips or down back alleys.

For the past nine years, she’s been stenciling words, quotes and poetry on pieces of discarded furniture as part of an adventure in public art.

What began as a masters project during university carried on as a “sanity project” and something that Sheils still enjoys doing in her own time.

“It’s been nine years on and it’s still ongoing,” Shiels exclaims.

Local publisher Helen Frajman, Director at M.33, saw a spark in Shiels’ work and asked her to assemble her collection to a create book -which is now available from Readings on Acland St.

St Kilda is also hosting an exhibition of Sheils’ work at the St Kilda Town Hall Art Gallery from April 23. From there it will head to New York, a very exciting prospect for any artist.

St Kilda has played an important role in Sheils’ work, offering a swathe of inspiration.

“St Kilda as an area has always experienced a lot of movement. It’s famously said that St Kilda has gone from riches to rags and back again.

“It was always a place for the itinerant population – with people coming and going. For that reason there were often mattresses and other items of furniture on the side of the road. The project began as an examination of the gentrification of the area and over the years it has evolved into something else,“ Sheils said.

Shiels wanted to examine the impermanence of objects in our lives, transforming them from garbage into something that has a story.

“Transforming the ordinary into something that speaks of the essence of humanity is a lot of what 20th and 21st century art is about – what’s unique in the ordinary,” Sheils said.

Her first series, The Things People Told Me (2005), is concerned with the fragility of life and its circumstances. The texts used were based on stories told to Shiels by homeless people and others at the margins of society. Two abandoned armchairs sit side by side; one is inscribed with “you never think it will happen to you”, the other with “then one day it does.”

The second series – The Things People Said (2005–11), quotes poets, politicians, writers, thinkers and artists, including Shiels herself. A frayed, striped armchair stenciled with “such is life” is a nod to both Ned Kelly’s last words and Tom Collins 1903 novel. John Howard’s famous “relaxed” and “comfortable” adorns two other forlorn armchairs.

The third series, One Thing Leads to Another (2011–13), uses vinyl lettering on abandoned television sets. The text was sourced from both active and abandoned websites.

“I am working from screen to screen: digital detritus cluttering up forgotten corners of cyberspace is re-animated by applying it to an obsolete analogue technology that is cluttering up the street,” Shiels said.

The final series, The Call of Things (2007–13), allows abandoned items to speak on their own behalf. A sagging tapestry couch asks: “Why are we here?”

Heide Museum of Modern Art Director Jason Smith will launch As Long As It Lasts, on Wednesday April 23 at St Kilda Town Hall Art Gallery.

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