AN inviting row of pavers guiding the way past flowers and trees to a verdant glade with rolling hills beyond has appeared in Fish Creek’s Falls Road, right beside a café in a heritage shop building.
Laid out below a sign reading PICNIC GARDEN, the path is a classical trompe l’oeil, a trick of the eye painted on a gate that actually does lead to a secret garden behind Gibson’s Café and Larder.
The magical trail mural has just been installed after being created by the Argentinian-born artist Gonzalo Varela who lives in Walkerville with his Australian-bred partner and fellow artist Lucy Parkinson and their two young sons, Lorenzo, 8 and Django, 6.
Gibson’s Café and Larder proprietor Michelle Gibson commissioned Gonzalo to design and produce the mural after she successfully applied for a $1000 COVID-19 Business Grant from the South Gippsland Shire Council in 2020.
The shire’s COVID-19 Business Grants program was established to help local businesses with a shop front that experienced a downturn due to COVID-19.
“When COVID-19 hit we immediately changed to take away service exclusively but once restrictions relaxed we wanted to allow people access to our secret garden via the side gate,” she said.
“We applied for the generous council grant specifically with signage in mind to advertise the picnic seating in the café’s rear garden and to signal to people coming into Fish Creek that dogs and bicycles are welcome.
“We already knew Gonzalo and that he is a wonderful local artist, and we immediately thought of him as exactly the right one to to do a mural that would draw people down the side way,” Michelle said.
“We are thrilled with the result as he has delivered far beyond all expectations, and we’re looking forward very much to welcoming people through the gate and into our beautiful garden whenever we’re open on those real picnic weather days.”
Gonzalo describes himself as “an eclectic painter and puppeteer” who has made other murals, often with surprises concealed within them, for places like the Werribee Zoo where his African landscape shelters a tiny and quite unexpected alien!
He and Lucy have become active members of South Gippsland’s arts set, as well as the local community, since moving their family from Fitzroy in inner-city Melbourne almost two years ago, just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Together they ran Magic Lantern Studios, offering workshops, puppet shows and visual art and public art programs, as well as creating the new iteration of the Ghost Train at St Kilda’s Luna Park before COVID-19
These days their boys are attending Fish Creek and District Primary School.
Both artists have also been taking part in the Victorian Government’s Creative Workers in Schools program run in partnership with Regional Arts Victoria, Creative Victoria, Working for Victoria and the Department of Education and Training.
Lucy has been working at the Fish Creek and District Primary School as an artist in residence, while Gonzalo has been working at the Meeniyan Primary School.
The program was designed to employ artists who have lost their livelihoods during COVID-19 and has been rolled out in government schools across metropolitan Melbourne and regional Victoria, connecting artists with schools that have no dedicated art teacher or creative arts program during six-month residencies.
“I am enjoying my life in the country very much, and I know that Lucy and the boys love it, too,” Gonzalo said.
“I was so happy when Michelle called me to ask if I would paint the café’s gate, and I want to say thank-you and how much I appreciate having my work on permanent exhibition in the heart of town,” he said.
“I feel very proud whenever I turn into Falls Road and I can see the gate with my mural on it.
“Michelle told me she wanted something that suggested the garden coming from the back to the front to invite people in,” Gonzalo said.
“She gave me the freedom to interpret her idea and I began with a photo of the tree in the garden to put in the background of the mural before working very slowly in acrylic paints, exploring the equilibrium between beauty and risk.”
Gonzalo said the Gibson’s Café mural was developed over a period of some months, and that he had liked wondering about what intriguing mysteries he might include among his view of a Fish Creek garden.
“Look closely the next time you are in Fish Creek and see if you can find all of the little characters hidden in the mural!”