The last time I was with Zoe we were on a small commune in Yucca Valley in Joshua Tree, California. The landscape has a visceral kind of scope to it. It feels like an imagining from a dystopian thriller or film slides you might find in a drawer being held to the sun. We were told that a lightning bolt struck a twig in Yucca Valley, starting a fire that spread through the desert, stopping only at the skirt of the commune protected by boulder cliffs, killing no one.
When we catch up in Stanmore in Sydney some eighteen months later Zoe has red lipstick on, a pair of bright clay-mold earrings and a light blue denim dress. We’re a long way from the desert but her charm and gentleness greet me immediately. Since I last saw her she’s co-founded a not-for-profit organisation called Welcome Walls. It’s a community based initiative and creative collaboration between Muralisto, Welcome Studio and City of Parramatta.
“We were interested in how we could add some colour and creativity into the Parramatta community – to create something that would reflect the diversity there. We were working with a lot of refugee organisations and meeting people of all different backgrounds,” she says.
Welcome Walls was created by Zoe and leading mural artist Xanda Zee. It emerged from their desire to use public art to break down social barriers and welcome young refugees and migrants into regions in Western Sydney. In a time where politicians and the media are focused on disharmony and distrust it is a unique concept.
“I love the idea that the city can be a space for people to grow and be inspired, like an open-air gallery – the artist as a magician – stuff that you’re not always going to like provides a safe place to share opinions and have conversations. Western Sydney has an incredible diversity and a growing character. It is re-defining itself in a lot of ways.”
A team of artists at Welcome Walls recently ran a workshop where people could explore their creative potential. It was a broad group – women from India, people from Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan – that participated. They co-designed three murals – one to be painted on ‘Australia Day’ and the other two to be large-scale feature walls in the Parramatta community.
Zoe’s passion for the initiative and her warm nature go hand in hand. We sit in the backyard. There’s a sign in the style of a number plate that reads, The Bungalow. Orange pale life bouys titled Sea Gypsy are secured to the red brick wall. I wonder what their function is all the way out here on Parramatta Road, far from feeling even the slightest southerly sea breeze. We have wine and talk. She knows exactly the kind of culture she wants to create and exactly how to communicate it.
“I’m really passionate about the impact of murals – Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo speak to me when we think about social change. There’s a huge place for theatre performance, for music and the arts in general. I think they have the capacity to really provoke and start positive conversations for change.”
As much of the nation stops for ‘Australia Day’, it is hard not to consider what it means to be Australian. A dialogue about treatment of refugees is necessary before we can look at ourselves as the lucky and fair country many claim to be. Over the next few weeks, the murals will be painted throughout Parramatta.
“We’re looking to engage the refugee and migrant communities to give them an opportunity to make a physical kind of change in these public spaces. We want to make an impact.”
By helping young refugees and minorities tell their stories, women like Zoe and the artists are opening up an important conversation about Australian identity and culture.
You can support Welcome Walls by taking part in their crowd funding campaign to raise funds to continue the workshops and paint more murals.