Ellen Coup – Interview with Bruce Mahalski

Ellen Coup – Interview with Bruce Mahalski

If you live in Wellington you will be familiar with Ellen Coup’s art work whether you know her name or not. Ellen is a forty-four year old prolific mural painter who was born in Christchurch but now lives in Raumati. She specializes in scenes depicting New Zealand’s flora and fauna – at least this has been the subject matter of many of her well-known murals. Bruce Mahalski recently had a coffee and a chat with Ellen and asked her about her work.

What got you into painting murals? 

I did a Diploma in Art and Craft Design at Whitirea Polytechnic and graduated in 1996. Afterwards, like many aspiring artists, I was doing paintings on canvas and trying to have shows before producing my ‘greatest work to date’, my son, in 1998.  I did my first mural with the students of Newtown School in 2000-2001, when friends’ children were students there. Next I took part in a group project painting, ‘Back on Earth’, a  mural, inside the City Gallery’s Michael Hirschfeld gallery later in 2001. I continued to paint canvases and do a few small private and school murals until 2004, when then City Council Arts Facilitator Eric Holowacz called for proposals to paint ‘Wellington Harbour’ along the low retaining wall separating the road and the footpath just north of Freyberg Pool, Oriental Bay. This work coincided with the refurbishment of the beach area and was co-funded by the Department of Conservation. I was one of the artists selected, painting the marine environment directly on to the concrete, while four others painted cut-out marine and beach wildlife to populate the mural. We had to rush to get it done in time for the opening ceremony, but it proved popular and won ‘Wellington’s Most Popular Mural’ in the Capital Times at least once. It also won a Civic Trust Award, together with the architects, for the new landscaping work. This was what really got me started.  I also have to give recognition to the ‘City Arts Team’, in particular Arts Programme Advisor, Katie Taylor-Duke, and the ‘Community Action Team’ at City Housing  for their support and help in facilitating many of the art projects I’ve done since.

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Do you know any other mural artists working in Wellington? 

Growing up in Wellington I was fascinated by some of the large public artworks in the city. One was the ‘Venetian landscape’ on the side of the Il Casino restaurant in Tory street and another was the people on the sides of the women’s toilets in Pigeon Park/Te Aro Park.  The first local mural artists I knew were  Bohdi Vincent and Chris Finlayson.  I met Bohdi when he was  a tutor at Whitirea. Chris, who I met through friends, did the awesome mural on the front of the  Forest and Bird  building on Taranaki Street (since demolished). He lives in Golden Bay now and still does terrific murals down there.

Not long after I left Whitirea I met airbrush artist Apotala Matapelu,  Brent Harpur, a  legally blind cartoonist and muralist now living in Australia and Maru ‘Marz’ Cummings who was forging a career as a brush Muralist with works all around the town. His ‘hard hatted workers’ on a large building on the wharf at Aotea Quay and his ‘garden’ on Russell Terrace in Berhampore are still there today. Sadly he was killed in a road accident while he was touching up the people on the  Pigeon/Te Aro Park toilets, in the early 2000’s. Bruce Mahalski (‘The Zoo Bus-stop’/’Kakapo Kids’ in Hopper Street) started around the same time I did thanks to jobs supplied by Eric Holowacz, and is still going today. Mica Still, who I meet through the Oriental Bay ‘Seawall Mural Project’, is going from strength to strength producing colourful,  dreamlike, ‘bears and wolves’  at numerous venues around the city. I’ve also recently met Porirua Muralist Ruth Taylor (‘Wellington-On-A-Plate’ mural in the Left Bank), Gabriel Heimler and Anna Proc (‘The Mover’ Museum Hotel) and John Fuller (‘Transport’ Mural, Miramar cutting). Quite a few local artists do the odd mural but not many are doing it for a full-time job the way I am. It’s become a life-style and a nice one if the weather is good

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What’s  the difference between a Street Artist and a  Muralist?

These lines are frequently blurred but I think there are a number of things which set the two apart. ‘Murals’ are done in consultation with a client (often a public body or business). They usually have very clear ideas about exactly what they want and the artist has to respond to them and get a mock-up of the finished work approved before they begin. Street art is more of a personal style thing where the concept comes directly from the artist’s responses to the world, often to provoke or unsettle the viewer or communicate with others in the street art community. However some well-known street artists are taking commissions now so these lines are becoming blurred. Murals tend to have a timeless quality, perhaps commissioned to beautify and increase public enjoyment of a space, or even deter unwanted tagging. They often have clear-coats applied to them to ensure longevity. ‘Street Art’ is more hooked into contemporary fashions and culture, employing subversion of ideas and permissions as part of their message. There is also a competitive aspect. Who can do it the fastest and the biggest! ‘Mural painters’ tend to take longer with their work and many still use paint brushes whereas ‘Street Artists’ work faster and mostly use spray cans.

Where do you see the future of murals in New Zealand? 

There has definitely been an opinion shift about ‘public art’ in the last ten years. People are more open-minded, and aware that art work enhances the public’s experience of a space. They’ll allow for the concept of art on their building rather than just painting it all one colour. Also the advance of acrylic paint technology and access equipment has made big outdoor painting cheaper and more practical. So I think there will be more work for people like me and more young people getting into public art-making. I’d like to see a lot more murals and street art covering every blank wall in the city and more ‘practice’ spaces for budding painters.