Claire Foxton talks blending fine art and graffiti ahead of Wollongong Wonderwalls Festival

No longer confined to the back streets of grungy inner-city suburbs, street art has really started to make it’s mark on Australia’s urban landscape. Among the artists who create these modern monoliths is Kiama-local Claire Foxton. Her realistic portraits, rendered in tremendous detail, pay homage to local heroes from across the country. Claire is one of a number of Aussie artists taking part in Wonderwalls, a festival of street art hitting the walls of Wollongong this month. I had the privilege of getting to know what makes this talented muralist tick…

Firstly, graffiti or street art – is there a difference and what do you call your work?

I go between mural art and public art. I don’t feel I’ve earned the right to call myself a street artist because I came into this comparatively late and I don’t have the traditional graffiti background that a lot of artists do. I have a double major in visual arts and graphic design and I’m still a graphic designer by trade. But I was given the opportunity to do a mural at the start of 2016 and I haven’t looked back since!

I wasn’t expecting it to be such a positive experience but the good thing about what I do is that I paint realistic portraits of people – even if someone is not really into art they can connect with my work.

You seem to use a lot of blue tones in your work – where does that come from?

I think it was probably inspired from a trip to Chefchaouen in Morocco (known as the Blue City). It’s such a vibrant city and absolutely everything is painted in different shades of blue. I think when I came back from that trip I started to do drawings and use those colours. I was asked to do a mural and I had to produce a concept in half a day. Blue was my first choice for that piece.

When I started I didn’t feel confident doing full-colour renders of realism, so restricting my colour palette made it easier for myself. Especially given the short time frames you have to produce mural art. So then I used blue for the next one, and it kind of became a thing. It wasn’t a conscious decision to have a brand or a signature but it certainly helps if you’re trying to forge a career. It’s a popular colour palette – who knows how long it will go. People keep calling it my blue period like Picasso!

What is your process for choosing the human subjects in your pieces?

I didn’t have much of an idea what I wanted to say when I first started, and I reached a turning point where I realised I wanted to feature someone from the community. It’s become a common theme. It’s about finding someone who has an interesting story that might not otherwise be told; people who have overcome adversity or have contributed to the community in a positive way. They’re average, everyday heroes.

You’re often asked to do work in towns and cities that you’ve never been to before – how do you find subjects to paint in an unfamiliar place?

I like to do a lot of research before I get there. It involves talking to people on the ground and doing internet research. And then once I find someone I think will be right for the piece I spend time with them and their families, getting to understand more about their lives.

Have you ever had anyone say no?

Most of the time when I tell someone I’d like to paint a gigantic version of them on a wall I just get silence. I think people don’t want to say no! Then they realise how big a deal it is. I’ve had no-one back out. Probably because it’s something so different and wouldn’t normally happen in an average person’s lifetime.

I did have one lady who was quite shy and timid. But she adored the process and the design and her whole family came on-board. It was wonderful to see someone so modest about her achievement receive recognition about her work in the community.

Is there someone you would particularly like to paint?

I don’t have any famous people I’d want to paint – it’s everyday people that I really like.

There is a guy in Wollongong and he’s someone everyone here knows. He wanders around town and pushes a trolley and posts these notices up on poles and wall. He has the most amazing face! But everywhere I go I see amazing people with really interesting faces and even just looking at them I know they would make great subjects.

Your next piece will be part of the Wonderwalls Festival in Wollongong…

It’s where it all began for me. One of my first largest walls was at last year’s Wollongong Wonderwalls (in November 2016).

I am starting to make some moves on choosing subject. I’m really looking for someone who’s done it tough and is in the process of rebuilding their lives. It’s a similar theme to the Port Adelaide mural (for Wonderwalls in April 2017). The woman pictured is part of a program that helps young homeless people back on their feet. She lived on the streets herself and now she’s studying to be a nurse – she’s an amazing woman who had it really tough but is now giving back to her community.

What inspires me most about my subjects is their general humility, their modesty. They have these characteristics that you can’t capture over the phone or email.

I recently painted a man named Bob in Gatton. I only had one day to get to know him before I started the mural. His mannerisms and the way he spoke, almost in riddles, made you feel so comfortable. It’s all those little idiosyncrasies that make the difference. It can sometimes affect the structure of the composition or the colours I use.

I ask all sorts of questions about these people’s lives. Bob gave me a pretty straightforward story about his life but it was the other people I spoke to about him that really shaped my picture. I got to hear all these amazing, positive stories about this man. It’s really special and I love that part of it.

Your work is so public, but so is the creative process. What is it like painting outside where anyone can watch you work?

At first the painting in public part was the most daunting. When you work in a studio no-one is judging your work while it’s in progress. But with mural art you can’t hide. You just have to embrace everyone’s comments as you go.

The first 3-4 days of painting the piece doesn’t really look like anything. But I enjoy talking to people who come to see the work while it’s in progress. I tell them about who I’m painting and why and they’ll keep coming back – they get really engaged with it.

Claire Foxton will be painting her next stunning creation on the streets of Wollongong as part of the Wonderwalls Festival, running from November 24-26. For more information about where you can see all the pieces, click here.