Wellington's mural maestro

Last updated 05:00 05/04/2014
Ellen Coup

SPLASH OF COLOUR: Ellen Coup is repainting the Oriental Bay seawall mural, almost a decade after she first created.

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You might not know her name, but you'll have seen Ellen Coup's work. Diana Dekker speaks to the "art labourer" who has splashed the city with her massive murals. 

Ellen Coup is re-painting Oriental Bay's 150 square metre seawall mural almost a decade after she first put paintbrush to concrete to create it, along with a handful of others, names mostly forgotten.

The massive seascape won a Civic Trust award in 2005, but Wellington's salty seaside gales, the occasional vandal and engineering to seal cracks and stop the retaining wall flopping have all done their worst for it.

The big mural is one of many Coup has painted in and around the city, including Living Cloak, the fern forest at the junction of Ghuznee St and the Terrace; murals in schools and on commercial buildings and council housing; and her latest, and the one she is most proud of, walls of rata trees in and out of bloom at Rata, the Zealandia cafe.

But it's the Oriental Bay mural that's in the most eye-catching position. Coup believes it was never meant to be permanent and was never given a clear, protective top-coat to keep it spruce years on. Now it's tatty, but still relevant, people have complained about the state of it, and she's been asked to rejuvenate it.

Originally she painted it in 40 days in midwinter and other artists painted the sea creatures on plywood cut-outs attached to it. Some of them have been vandalised. She expects repainting the background will take her two or three weeks.

The seawall mural was her second after one for Newtown School - which she did to suss out the idea of being a teacher - and the one that set her on a career as a muralist.

"It snowballs. Once you do one thing, people start ringing," she says.

Painting murals is hard work and it pays badly. "For a large part of my career I was a beneficiary and I wouldn't have been what I am now without it."

Some of her early projects were done for free. No-one wants a mural unless they can see an example so she needed to have a portfolio.

Even the Oriental Bay commission didn't keep food on the table for long - "but I'd have done it for nothing. I wanted that wall. It was low, it was going to be easy to work on and it was large and prominent." Fixing it up is paying infinitely better.

It's not just bad pay and bad weather she has to fear. There's the threat of miscreants defacing the work.

"I think you can divide graffiti artists into three sorts of people - the ones interested in making art probably won't work over the top of a work, others want their tags recognised and they like a blank space so their tag is visible, and another group just enjoy upsetting people and painting on roller doors and letter boxes and over the top of other work. For the most part my work has been pretty tag-free."

The 42-year-old is a Whitireia graduate. She wanted to be a figurative, realistic painter. She got into murals, with all its difficulties "because I'm bloody minded", but also because of the sense of accomplishment - and the fear.

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"I think I like doing them because they frighten me, and if you can manage to do something big and scary, you walk away with a bigger feeling of accomplishment. I feel the fear and do it anyway."

Being a muralist is a very public occupation "and it's certainly not for everyone". She paints away in her high-vis vest, for all the world like a road worker, and people stop to watch.

"I don't sit there and engage with people, but I field queries and I'm good at being a diplomat."

She has clear memories of Oriental Bay residents being very proprietorial while she was painting the mural. It was: "What are you doing to our wall." One grumpy old man demanded: "Have you got permission to do that," and added scathingly, when she said it was a council and Conservation Department commission: "Just how long do you think that will last by the sea."

The murals, she says, are like a challenge. "You tend to become married to it. I've had times when I had no energy to do anything after work.

"Bodhi Vincent [a fellow artist] said something that has stuck in my mind. He said ‘you're an art labourer,' and it's very true.

"So much is workmanlike. You're really just putting paint on a surface. I do what my clients want to see. I always make stuff I'm proud of, but at the same time it's the client's wall and a commission. It makes me nervous, it's fun and it's really exciting.

"Part of what I love about the walls is that people can enjoy them without having to pay for them."

- Wellington


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