‘It’s good to be alive’: Groundbreaking New Zealand artist brings light and joy to city streets | New Zealand

“It’s good to be alive,” says artist Sallie Culy as she finishes a ham and cheese sandwich at one of the many cafes she frequents most of the day in Wellington. “It’s really good to be alive.”

Sallie’s words, like much of the way she interacts with the world, are life-affirming. As a person and as an artist, she celebrates the connection, imagination, joy and everyday interactions that make life sparkle. His approach is a welcome reprieve at a time when the world is grappling with tragedy, and the city Sallie loves – Wellington – is still catching its breath after a week-long protest that ended with parliament burning down .

Sallie, who was born with Williams Syndrome – a rare genetic condition that causes developmental and learning disabilities – has become a familiar face to Wellington residents. As the title of her first-ever public art exhibit — “Hello to Everybody” — suggests, Sallie is one of the friendliest people in town.

“I love people saying ‘hi’ and ‘hello’,” she says of the huge community she’s created for herself.

The art of Sallie Culy in Wellington. She often draws her friends and family – “John” (R) is a sketch of her father. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/The Guardian

Sallie leads a relatively independent life, and when she’s not volunteering at Wellington City Mission and Holy Cross School in Miramar, singing in the Wellington Community Choir or chatting with her wide range of friends in the shops and cafes of the capital, she is making art.

Just around the corner from the cafe, on Courtenay Place, one of the city’s main strips, is a series of nearly one-story light boxes. On display are Sallie’s works – pen and pencil drawings of brightly colored flowers, cats with attitude, skaters in orange tracksuits, pop stars like Rhianna, food trays and depictions of friends and family.

The designs are bold, playful and an utterly joyful tribute to the city she called home during her 41st birthday.

“It’s just love and it’s hopes and dreams for other people because they’re trying not to struggle,” Sallie says of her work.

Sally Culy
Sallie has no formal artistic training and began focusing on drawing around five years ago. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/The Guardian

Rotating light box exhibits have been part of Wellington’s public art program since 2008 and Sallie is the first artist with an intellectual disability to exhibit her work there.

“But we’re sure Sallie won’t be the last,” said Eve Armstrong, the council’s senior artistic advisor.

Sallie has loved drawing since she was a child, but has had no formal artistic training. Five years ago she began visiting her brother, award-winning photographer Harry Culy, for weekly sketching sessions and has built up an extensive portfolio of work. Harry and Sallie then approached Wellington City Council with an exhibition proposal.

Sallie Culy's art in a light box
Sallie’s work represents a visual diary of her daily life in Wellington. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/The Guardian

“This exhibit as a whole can be a public forum for the often overlooked unique talents that can be found in people with disabilities,” the proposal reads.

Upon receiving the proposal, Armstrong said, “It was engaging and joyful, and we felt Sallie’s drawings and perspective on life in Pōneke. [Wellington city] would generate interest and conversation among the public”.

The response to the exhibit was beyond what she could have imagined. “So many people have felt a personal connection to the show by knowing Sallie and seeing her around town over the years.”

“One of the most moving experiences I have heard is of a group of students visiting the light box exhibit, as they recognized Sallie from the media, but also had a student in their school with down syndrome. of Williams.”

Sally Culy drawing of a skateboarder and a cat in light boxes
Sallie often sketches the skateboarders of Wellington (L), a community she says “look out for themselves”. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/The Guardian

It’s incredibly difficult for people with disabilities to access art spaces, says Harry, who as a photographer understands the art world.

“There has been a lot of exclusion in the past in these spaces – bringing more diverse voices to this space is really important.”

Sallie, who is “really honored and really proud” of the exhibition, hopes that the presentation of the work of an artist with a disability will foster connection and understanding between people: “because if people understand me, I can understand them – you know, we can just sit back and learn how to bond”.

Harry Culy and Sallie Culy
Sallie and worked with his brother, photographer Harry Culy (L), on a proposal to exhibit his art in Wellington. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/The Guardian

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