7 August 2023

From weeds to works of art: beauty, conservation and community meet in this Stanwell Park open-air gallery

| Dione David
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Stanwell Park sculptor Kieran Tapsell holds a hand painted ceramic egg

The fascinating open-air gallery known as Art in the Park is the combination of curator Kieran Tapsell’s two passions – conservation and art. Photo: Region.

If you’ve ever explored the bush around stunning Stanwell Park Beach, including the low-key Stanwell Avenue Reserve, you may have come across a curious sight.

Dotted along the tracks are giant bird’s nests – currently 212 in total, each containing a solitary ceramic egg adorned in hand-painted artwork.

This is Art in the Park – a sprawling open-air art gallery curated by Banksia Bush Care founder Kieran Tapsell.

The former lawyer turned ceramic artist sculpts and fires the eggs in the backyard of his Stanwell Avenue home and about 100 or so local artists and community members, including local children, painted them.

While most of the Illawarra’s public artworks are commissioned, Art in the Park is an innovative way of dealing with the remnants of noxious weeds.

Kieran says Wollongong City Council has been very supportive of the project, which offers multiple social and environmental benefits.

It galvanises locals, including the children, in both conservation and culture, educates the community on the local fauna and flora (via tree labels) and reduces fire hazards.

The latter is something that has long troubled Kieran in particular, as the owner of one of a handful of old homes right amid the reserve.

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In this “flame zone” excessive leaf litter and invasive species such as lantana heighten risks.

He did what he could on his own to clear it away, but upon retiring signed up for the HelpX and Work Away programs, offering lodgings to backpackers in exchange for a few hours of hard yakka a day in the pursuit of land care.

Before long he had amassed a veritable hill of lantana that the council bush care team couldn’t pick up.

“I thought, ‘What now’? It was a major concern for myself and other residents,” Kieran says.

Sticks, leaves and twigs arranged into a giant bird's nest

In various stages of decomposition, the nests are ostensibly compost heaps arranged into sculptures that require constant rejuvenation.

Inspired by a giant bower bird nest sculpture he had seen in the yard of Wombarra sculptor Gaby Porter, he repurposed the weeds that once smothered the surrounding bushland into nest sculptures.

It takes five to 10 wheelbarrows of twigs, sticks, weeds and leaf litter to fabricate one nest. They don’t look it though, and that’s because they’re ostensibly compost heaps in various stages of decomposition and in constant need of renovation.

That’s why Kieran had a hunch that while the raw materials posed a fire hazard, the nests, ironically, would act as a retardant.

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It’s a theory he was willing to put to the test, building nests on his property and a few metres away, leaving an equivalent quantity of sticks weeds and leaves, just as council had suggested.

After a couple of years, he burned them both side by side and observed that while the outsides burned fast enough, the moist, composting centre restricted airflow and choked the fire.

“The nest took twice as long to burn, and with much less intensity,” Kieran says.

“It doesn’t cease being a hazard by being turned into a nest but it’s significantly reduced, and I’ve proven it.”

But the gallery is more widely known and loved for less practical reasons.

When local galleries were closed during COVID-19 lockdowns, Kieran decided to rally the locals.

“I thought we could create an art gallery here and suggested that we paint the works of masters on the eggs,” he says.

“We called it the MATE exhibition – Modern Art Tributes on Eggs.”

MATE showcased tributes to the likes of Picasso, Van Gogh and Modigliani by local artists. Closer to the beach are tributes to Australian artists and local community members, including the late Michael Mucci – an illustrator and Kieran’s close friend, who sadly lost his battle with brain cancer in 2019.

Of course, scattered around are artworks by local children, including a tribute to Archibald winner John Olsen in the Australian section.

And since there was a theory among younger gallery-goers that nests belonged to dinosaurs, many of the eggs have been crafted with baby dinosaurs emerging.

Though there are signs up politely reading, “Please do not steal me”, and Kieran himself admits the eggs are very “tempting”, he says the gallery has seen very little vandalism.

“People are appreciative of it,” he says. “I think when it comes to Art in the Park, there’s a sense of ownership in the local community. And that’s how public art should be viewed.”

For more information on Kieran Tapsell and other Illawarra artists visit the Northern Illawarra Art Trail.

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