Wollongong’s Papergirls building community connections as they deliver free art

Papergirl started in Berlin in 2006 in protest against a law that prohibited street artists displaying posters in public. It has since become a worldwide street art project. In Wollongong, which was the first city in NSW to participate in the project, Papergirl is now in its second year.

Papergirl Wollongong Project Coordinator, Emily Gunthorpe says that Papergirl is about connecting artists to the local community by gifting art at random in the streets.

“It’s nice to show a different perspective in the art world, that you can have things for free. The project is about altruism and expressing the culturally diverse identities of our community,” Emily says.

The Papergirl project has three main stages. First Papergirl collects donations of artwork from the community.

“This year the artworks were donated from all different types of people. We were given artworks from a childcare centre from children as young as two, right up to elderly citizens of our community, people in disability services and university students,” Emily says.

“The artworks ranged from illustrations, poetry, photography and even musical lyrics. Basically anything creative that you can put on paper.”

The work is then showcased in pop up exhibitions across the city. Artwork from the 2014 Papergirl Wollongong project was displayed in local coffee shops Lee & Me, Meni Café, Lower East, Swell Coffee and Delano Coffee as well as at bicycle dealer Simple Cycles and Hello Petal Florist.

Emily says that the pop up exhibitions were beneficial not only for the Papergirl Wollongong project but also for the businesses involved.

“We partner with local businesses and assist them to connect with creative people from the community,” Emily says.

Pop-up exhibition: Papergirl artwork on display at Lee and Me Boutique.

Pop-up exhibition: Papergirl artwork on display at Lee and Me Boutique.

Lee & Me Boutique Manager, Tori Wong says that the pop up exhibition, that filled what was previously a blank wall in the boutique, provided an opportunity for the business to connect with local artists.

“There are such talented people in the (Wollongong) community,” Tori says.

“It has been wonderful to get involved with Papergirl and expand into this art community.”

Finally, when the pop up exhibitions finish, the artworks are rolled up and distributed via bicycle at Viva La Gong festival. This year the bundles included a flower donated from Hello Petal Flowers.

Papergirl Wollongong Artist Coordinator, Tegan Russell says that Papergirl is about connecting artists with the community, but also aims to promote creativity in people who aren’t usually creative.

“Artists are quiet people and they are not very self-promoting. Papergirl shows artists and also the community how many artists there are. It also shows people that they can also be an artist – that art doesn’t have to be within a gallery,” Tegan says.

“It’s about expanding creative awareness essentially.”

Emily and Tegan have known each other since they both studied Visual Art at Figtree High School. Despite being two years apart at school, they have remained close friends and have always wanted to work together on a creative project. Whilst Emily was planning the 2014 Papergirl Wollongong project, Tegan was conceptualising Now You See Me (NYSM) Gallery, an art gallery to support emerging artists and make art more accessible.

“We initially started conceptualising our projects together, then went our own separate ways and built up our projects before reconnecting again,” Tegan says.

“I was running the exhibition Making Friends at Project Contemporary Artspace and I invited Papergirl to launch their project in the space during the time that NYSM Gallery was exhibiting.”

Making Friends with Papergirl Wollongong was a four day collaboration in August 2014 between NYSM Gallery, Papergirl Wollongong, Project Contemporary Artspace and Wollongong Writers Festival and involved the exhibition as well as a launch party and free workshops. The free workshops were facilitated by NYSM Gallery’s Tegan Russell and fellow artist Kristen Byrnes, Papergirl’s Emily Gunthorpe and Wollongong Writers Festival contributor John Glenn-Doyle.

Tegan ran two of the workshops, Peculiar Portraits and Magic Mandalas; Mandalas are circular symbols, the colours and patterns of which are a process of self-expression for the artist. Tegan says that a lot of people at the workshops had not created artwork before, including a group of medical students whose Mandalas became part of a giant installation grid of postcard sized artwork in the Making Friends exhibition.

Collecting art: Papergirl's Artist Coordinator Tegan Russell with the Papergirl submission box at NYSM Gallery in Wollongong's Central Chambers. Photo: Heather Wortes

Collecting art: Papergirl’s Artist Coordinator Tegan Russell with the Papergirl submission box at NYSM Gallery in Wollongong’s Central Chambers.

“There are so many people in our community that really appreciate creative people and strive to be more creative themselves,” Tegan says.

Emily and Tegan, along with Head Creative Michelle Pinkis and an enthusiastic bunch of interns, make up the Papergirl Wollongong team.

Emily thinks that the impacts of projects like Papergirl Wollongong on the community are positive but they also take time.

“In a community like Wollongong, where traditional jobs and the economic landscape is changing, I think people are beginning to see the benefits of investing and participating in the arts. If we show the business sector how important art and creative initiatives can be for the community I think that there will be more jobs created, more tourism and more funding,” she says.

Emily says that it is difficult to get paid work in the arts and that the Papergirl Wollongong project provides an avenue to assist emerging artists and writers to find jobs.

“Each year we put a call out for interns to participate in the project and build professional skills in project management, event photography, workshop facilitation, social media coordination and journalism. From this exposure many emerging writers and artists we have worked with been able to find paid employment,” Emily says.

“There is no job market for us, especially in Wollongong so we are building our own jobs,” she says.

In 2014 Papergirl Wollongong focused on building their partnerships with community organisations and creating further networking opportunities for emerging artists involved in the project.

“Collaborating with NYSM Gallery, Project Contemporary Artspace, Wollongong Writers Festival and an array of talented creative individuals and local businesses has been the highlight of the 2014 project,” Emily says.

“We’ve also partnered with Creative Sparks Ignite exhibition, which was a community collaboration project.”

It was at Creative Sparks Ignite that Emily recalls the most memorable Papergirl artwork.

An overhead projector was set up at the exhibition and the silhouette of everyone that entered the gallery was recorded on a large piece of paper.

“By the end of the exhibition we had dozens of people’s outlines on this piece of paper including a pregnant lady who gave birth 10 days later, children as young as two, teenagers and elderly people,” Emily says.

“It reflected a portion of the identity of Wollongong. It’s an artwork I really enjoyed creating with the community,” she says.

The global community connections created by Papergirl mean that some lucky people at the 2013 and 2014 Viva La Gong festivals received an artwork from another country.

“Last year we collected artwork from the worldwide Papergirl community including artworks from Italy, Mexico, Japan and the US and this year we can add Germany to that list,” Emily says.

“We hope that anyone who was gifted an artwork at Viva La Gong cherishes it as there are not many things in life for free and an artwork is a little part of someone else’s soul,” she says.

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