How This Archibald Prize-Nominated Artist Is Using Public Murals To Tell Intimate Stories

Sarah McCloskey wants you to contemplate your place in the world. While it may seem existential, her exploration of the interplay between the human form and the natural world is comforting and beautiful — and has been celebrated nationally for its creativity.
The year, Sarah McCloskey was nominated for the Archibald Prize with her oil painting of writer and visual artist Omar Musa which was inspired by Sydney's lengthy lockdown. Since then, she has worked with countless brands to create deeply human pieces.
Refinery29 Australia spoke to her about her artistic process, where she draws inspiration from, and what it was like recently creating a mural for the new Paramount+ drama, Special Ops: Lioness in Sydney.

Refinery29 Australia: How did you initially get into creating mural art?

I was always very interested in large-scale art and the street art movement. My first real studio was in Perth above The Butcher Shop, a graffiti/art supply store, which introduced me to the materials, culture, techniques and most importantly, the people who could help me get started.
Then in 2015, I was kindly invited to paint my first mural as part of the PUBLIC street art festival in Perth, which kicked things off.

What do you love about the medium? How does it differ from other kinds of visual art?

I love the scale — creating something that can be seen from afar, emerging in the distance as you round a corner, filling a previously unused space. I also like the public nature of the works; they feel like they can become part of the neighbourhood or community fabric in a way that other art cannot.
The act of painting in a public space is also very different to my other work — people very often will stop to talk, or just watch, which opens up a dialogue and allows people to see the creation of an artwork in a way they may not often see outside of an artists' studio.

What themes do you aim to explore in your work, and how do you go about exploring them?

The themes I am interested in visually do shift a little over time. However, my focus tends to be on personal narratives and stories, memory, familiarity, and human nature. Many of my works are figurative or portraiture based, allowing me to tell a real or imagined story through a person, often with other elements tied in to represent aspects of their story or simply other familiar imagery — such as local flora or other relevant images and symbols.

Your work has been featured all over Sydney — what's your favourite piece you've created, and what is the story behind it?

One that immediately springs to mind is the mural I created last year for the McGrath Foundation in North Sydney, depicting a young cancer patient and her great care nurse in celebration of International Nurses Day. This project was extremely challenging but deeply rewarding, and the resulting mural is something we were all very proud of.

Who are the visual artists that inspire you? Do you seek inspiration from other mediums?

I find inspiration all over the place — I am lucky enough to share a studio building with many incredible artists, many of whom are established in the mural art space, which is always motivating and inspiring to be around. I'm also very inspired by figurative oil painters — both traditional and contemporary — as this is another big part of my practice. I'm always looking for ways to transfer techniques between these two vastly different mediums. Most of my inspiration comes from the physical and visual world — art or otherwise — more so than music or film. However, I think they still complement one another when I'm looking for inspiration or motivation.
At the moment, my inspirations include Kitsune Jolene, Telmo Miel, Pat Perry, Ash Taylor, Bronte Naylor, Aaron Nagel, Abdul Abdullah, Chuck Close, Little Simz, Jordan Rakei, JID, Kenny Beats, Kaiit and The Bear.

Can you explain practically how you create a mural — what tools do you use? How long does it usually take? What happens if the weather turns sour?

Many of the tools and materials will vary depending on the location and the design. Generally speaking, I use spray paint or brush and tinned paint, or a combination of the two. For most jobs, I will start with some kind of grid on the wall to help me transfer my existing design to the wall at the right scale and proportions and then go from there. Murals can take anywhere from a couple of days to weeks (even months) on end, depending on size, but most of the walls I've painted have been finished within one-to-two weeks.
If the weather turns sour, it can be possible to keep painting. However, if the wall gets too wet, it's best to take a break and hope that the paint has dried enough for it not to run down the wall! It's happened many times on jobs, so it's just something you have to accept and hope for the best — I've painted in rain, hail, storms and heatwaves, and it's just part of the risk of working outdoors. (This is why indoor murals can be a real treat sometimes).

Can you explain the process behind creating your mural for Lioness: Special Ops?

As with most projects for large campaigns like this, there were some interesting parameters I had to work with when producing an artwork to be painted. As the design was to be painted in multiple cities around Australia, it needed to be something that was replicable across different walls and with the assistance of different teams.
The process of designing the mural involved a lot of back and forth with digital sketches and colour palettes before finally landing on a version of the design. I then worked on applying the design to the numerous wall templates to ensure it was laid out correctly for each city. From there, it was in the hands of some skilled painting teams, with me on-site at the Sydney installation.

What did you aim to achieve with the Lioness mural?

I wanted to create something that was quite simple and stripped back to complement the existing promotional material for the show, and I hoped that by using layered silhouettes and subtle imagery, it would create an air of intrigue and mystery and perhaps pique the curiosity of passers-by without giving too much away.
I aimed to encapsulate the key elements and symbolism from the existing material but rework it into a more dynamic and stylised version, with the title text front and centre, as the show would already be live and ready to view when being painted.
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