A youthful vignette of the Inner West’s history has popped up on the corner of Albermarle and Baltic Street, Newtown, in a new mural by artist Sharon Billinge. Unveiled on Saturday June 24, it is the latest product of the Inner West Council’s Perfect Match program, connecting muralists with willing property owners to reduce graffiti and breathe new life into community spaces.
The mural features six young children, standing together and looking on enigmatically at the viewer. A composite work, Billinge painted the mural by combining a 1930s photograph of boys collecting firewood, found in an old book on Newtown’s history, with a photo of homeowners Pip and Peter’s daughter.
Sam Hood’s photograph was initially presumed to depict child labourers known as “block boys” in the 1930s. Further research, however, revealed a far more poignant narrative.
“When we first found the photo [Pip and Peter] were like, ‘I’m not sure we want to have a child labour picture on the wall,” explained Billinge, “but we learnt it was just kids trying to basically keep their homes warm … these kids had nothing apart from the community that was around them.”
Despite this discovery, the boys in Billinge’s mural remain anonymous, with their names, ages and lives lost to the passage of time. “You could look at their faces and you could think what their characters were like, the lives they were having,” Billinge mused. Public art, she explained, “can transport people – they’ll look at something and it’ll take them somewhere different, or just delight them.”
The lone girl in the mural, however, is a different story. She was added in after the Council expressed concerns about a lack of diversity in the original 1930s reference photo. “I was very, very adamant that we wouldn’t just make one of these figures like a token. That really stank to me,” Billinge said.
Initially, Billinge tried including a girl from a different photo by the same photographer, until the homeowners, Pip and Peter, felt an opportunity to personalise the mural, suggesting using a childhood photo of their daughter Zoe instead.
Painting Zoe proved to be the most demanding aspect of the mural. “I painted her face about four or five times trying to make her match with the others,” Billinge recalled.
Zoe, now 27, spoke to The South Sydney Herald about the inclusion of her 8-year-old self among the mural’s five boys, and what it means for representing Newtown’s diversity.
“Sharon incorporated the history of children of the Inner West and then myself as a child—who grew up in the Inner West almost 100 years later. It was an honour to be immortalised on my childhood home,” she said.