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Wendy Sharpe wears paint splattered overalls as she works painting mural.
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Jewish Museum

This stunning mural in a Sydney museum will be destroyed before the public ever sees it

Archibald-winning artist Wendy Sharpe has been hard at work on an artwork that won’t ever be witnessed

Written by
Alannah Maher
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Retreating to the solemn beauty of the Sydney Jewish Museum in Darlinghurst, Wendy Sharpe has been hard at work for the past couple of months. The Sydney-based artist, who has won both the Archibald and Sulman Prizes in her time, has been transforming notebooks full of sketches, drawings and paintings into a large-scale mural depicting colourful streetscapes and snippets of her own nostalgic memories from her 2019 trip to Ukraine and her family’s hometown of Kamianets-Podilski.

Taking its name from a Yiddish folk song, the mural is titled ‘Vu iz dos Gesele (Where is the Little Street)?’ and is a reflection not only of Sharpe’s personal history, but it also explores the broader experiences of asylum seekers and refugees.

The painting is finally finished after the artist first took to the wall with paintbrushes in late June. However, the public will never have the chance to see this new masterpiece in person – it will be painted over at the end of August, and returned to memory. While the artwork had always been intended as a fleeting installation, the museum hadn't anticipated that Sydney would enter its second lockdown around the time the work got started. With stay-at-home orders now in place until at least August 28, the entire eight weeks that the mural was supposed to be exhibited will have elapsed by the time the city exits lockdown.

Artist Wendy Whitely with mural in progress.Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Jewish Museum

“We gambled and we lost! We thought it was safe to go ahead with painting the mural in the hope that museum visitors and Wendy Sharpe fans would flock in to see the completed product,” said head curator Roslyn Sugarman.

“Instead of restrictions easing, they became more severe. Now, this remarkable 40-metre-long mural, which was meant to immerse the visitor and connect them to its story, remains silent and invisible. By the time restrictions lift, the mural will be painted over to make way for new offices – construction is scheduled for the first week in September.”

Artist Wendy Whitely with mural in progress.Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Jewish Museum

Fittingly, the song from which the mural takes its name is about longing for a place that no longer exists. Sharpe’s grandmother Bessie, who she never met, used to sing it. The artist said: “This is one of my most significant works and certainly the most personal. In a sense, it is a culmination of work over many years. The mural was always meant to be ephemeral and painted over; part of the theme. However, it is so unfortunate that due to lockdown no one can visit in person.”

While we have been robbed of the opportunity to see the work in person, the museum is compensating by hosting two virtual events where you can experience the magic of Wendy Sharpe from home:

‘Vu iz dos Gesele (Where is the Little Street)?’ premiere event with Wendy Sharpe

On Sunday August 8 at 3pm, the museum is hosting an online premiere event featuring a series of documentary clips, an artist Q&A, and a behind-the-scenes look at the development of the mural. Register for this free event here.

Beyond the canvas – Artist talk with Wendy Sharpe, Bernard Ollis and Elizabeth Fortescue

On Sunday August 15 at 4pm, tune in for an artist interview with arts editor Elizabeth Fortescue and artists Wendy Sharpe and Bernard Ollis. The three will speak on the importance of recording history and sharing family stories through art. Register for this free event here.

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