Making her mark

Artist Susan Respinger at work on Bulwer Plaza, May 2022.

THIS week’s tale from the City of Vincent Local History Centre looks at Bulwer Plaza, where an artist’s delve into the plaza’s past led to deeper exploration into the area’s far older history and connections.

BUILT in 1923, the buildings on the corner of Bulwer and Lake streets, Bulwer Plaza, with their distinctive architectural Anglo Dutch style fades, have long been a local landmark. 

Over the years, the shops have hosted a range of businesses including laundries, dressmakers, grocers, electricians, a biscuit factory and even an art gallery. 

Earlier this year, the owners commissioned Perth artist Susan Respinger to breathe new life into the grand old building with a series of colourful and distinctive murals.

“The owners of the building wanted to give it a bit of a revamp. We didn’t want to overshadow the beauty of the building, we just wanted to enhance it and breathe life into it,” Susan explains.

“It was quite a difficult shaped building to work with so the only really big open wall to add a story piece was the alley wall which is fortunately still very visible to the main road. 

“We decided it should have some reference to the history of the area. I thought about the fact that the area’s history went well past the building even existing and the building was built on land which has belonged to the Whadjuk Noongar people for at least 45,000 years.”

The highlight of Susan’s work on Bulwer Plaza is the large-scale portrait of Noongar woman and Essendon VFLW vice-captain Courtney Ugle.

“I had been following an amazing indigenous photographer, Michael Jalaru Torres’ work for a while on Instagram… which is how I came across Courtney’s photo. 

“Not only was she stunning, but as I started to look into her story I was amazed by what an incredible person she is. 

“Courtney is not only a proud Noongar woman, she is also a star footballer for Essendon, a spokesperson for domestic violence, resilience and overcoming adversity for people all over the country. 

“I was ecstatic to receive permission from both Courtney and Michael to use the photo as a reference for my piece. 

“I couldn’t have asked for a more relevant face to represent the times as conversations around the country and the world start focusing more on First Nations people’s rights, violence against women and equal pay for women in sport.

“I think the most special moment I had while painting the mural of Courtney was on Australia Day. 

“I had decided not to celebrate it; as much as I love Australia, I recognise that it’s hurtful for many people to celebrate on that day. 

“So instead I decided to continue painting my portrait of Courtney. 

“While I was painting, a few local indigenous people came to chat with me and recognised that Courtney was actually a part of their family, the Ugles. 

“They told me they were incredibly grateful for this piece existing and representing their people especially on such a controversially significant day. 

“As we spoke about it we all got a bit teary. I was so overwhelmed to be able to see the real life positive effects this piece could have on the community. 

“Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to represent more incredible role models in the future.”

Susan’s murals on Bulwer Plaza also feature a willie wagtail, yellow orchids, gum leaves and flowers and a threatened creature called a red-tailed phascogale above the Miller and Baker bakery and cafe. The animal has a connection to Miller and Baker who buy their supplies from a local farm that is supporting habitat regeneration for this vulnerable marsupial.

For information about Susan’s work visit https://susanrespinger. com/. For more information about the history of Bulwer Plaza, visit the City of Vincent Local History Centre in person at the Vincent Library, or online at https://library. vincent.wa.gov.au/localhistory-centre. aspx

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