“We are in a fishbowl — it’s like people don’t realise it’s glass, and that we can see them staring,” Claire Wildish says of the onlookers whose paces often slow, just a little, when passing the wall-to-wall glass windows that she and an assortment of budding artists sit behind each day.

“It’s always changing; there’s always something new to look at. We are telling a story just by being here.”

Until recently, the only thing behind the glass was office workers grabbing coffee and sandwiches. But when Uniting Communities’ $100 million U City high rise popped up on the corner of Franklin and Pitt streets, it left its former headquarters just next door practically empty. Over the past six months, Wildish has been the artist-in-residence charged with shepherding the empty ground floor space’s reinvention as a community-building art studio.

Stepping into the space, the vibe is certainly more anarchic than the polished glass and modern architecture next door — something made clear by the mural emblazoned across its northern wall.

“This mural, we’re following graffiti rules — you can’t paint over someone else’s work, but you can keep the story going,” she explains of the work, a colourful mess that’s part Jackson Pollock, part water balloon fight.

With her residence funded by Wellbeing SA as part of the state government’s Wellbeing Strategy, Wildish works with a variety of groups supported by the social services hub located next door. Today, she’s joined by participants in New ROADS, Uniting Communities’ drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.

“They’re only required to be here for an hour and a half a week, but they’re here all day Wednesday,” she explains. “When these guys start, I always say, ‘I don’t feel like you’re required to be here. I want you to like coming here’. So if I can find something for them to do in the space that gives them the freedom to express themselves, then we’re all happy.”

“In the city everyone’s in such a rush, but if you sit down with someone, and sit and draw or weave, you can share a little bit of yourselves.” Photo: Aubrey Jonsson

Wildish also works with many of U City’s retired residents, and enjoys the potential for unexpected collaboration the space provides.

“There’s a lot of coming and going, and this wall is an example; there’s been some natural friendships that have been built up between people who are in New ROADS and the older residents. Creating, sharing life stories, and skills, they pop in and out of each other’s studio time.”

Before coming to Pitt Street, Wildish spent five years in the remote Western Australian community of Irrunytju, where she helped run the local art centre. While the setting could not be more different, she says there are a lot of similarities.

“I’ve moved around a lot, but that’s the hardest move I’ve ever made, coming from the desert to [the city]. But working in an inner city environment, where they’re trying to build a community with people from all walks of life… that had real appeal to me.

“We just wanted to create a safe space,” she says of her time in Irrunytju. “Number one, that’s what this is. It’s a safe space. Whether you’re in the middle of the desert or the middle of the city, having a place where you’re comfortable or at ease, where nobody judges you, we all want that.”

Number one, that’s what this is. It’s a safe space.” Photo: Aubrey Jonsson

There’s perhaps no better illustration of what Wildish is trying to build than that aforementioned ‘free wall’.

“It’s a conversation between three girls in the New ROADS program and a resident. One of them had had a particularly bad week,” she says of the younger participants, who had been struggling after a friend graduated from the program, leaving them behind.

“They’d been asking me for a couple of weeks if they could paint the walls. I had said yes, but I knew as soon as they came in that today had to be the day — even if I wasn’t prepared for it.”

She sent them across the road to Coles for important art supplies (water balloons) before embarking on what Wildish describes as a “real expression of anger and passion, of letting it out”.

“On a bad day, who doesn’t want to chuck paint at the wall?”

Claire at work. Photo: Aubrey Jonsson

Later, a resident in his 70s arrived, and got talking to the young women about their act of colourful catharsis.

“He had a real emotional response, so he wrote [the poem],” she says, pointing to the writing scrawled on the wall next to — and in conversation with — the girls’ work.

“That is very symbolic of what we do.

“You have these beautiful moments with people: sometimes they’re brief, sometimes they’re longer. In the city everyone’s in such a rush, but if you sit down with someone, and sit and draw or weave, you can share a little bit of yourselves.”

In the Studio is a regular series presented by InReview in partnership with not-for-profit organisation Guildhouse. The series will share interesting stories about South Australian visual artists, craftspeople and designers, offering insight into their artistic practices and a behind-the-scenes look at their studios or work spaces. Read our previous stories here.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.