By Jodi Bryant

A vivid, thought-provoking mural to now grace a formerly decrepit wall in downtown Whangarei has been taking passers-by on a mesmerising visual poetic journey.

Artist Olivia Garelja has been working on the project, commissioned by the Northland Regional Council (NRC) outside their Water St premises, for the last six weeks and, against the odds during the middle of winter, completed it last week.

"Passers-by have been so supportive and open to discuss the mural out of interest from the beginning, what it was developing into and to find out more about the process… to get it to the stage it is now," comments Oliva. "It has become, from my perspective, an educational piece that tells a powerful story at a time where, as a nation, we are starting to look at preservation and full circle outcomes."


After moving from Auckland, Olivia, 30, through a connection at Creative Northland, was provided with the opportunity to submit a mural concept for selection.

"I feel humbled to have been selected to be able to give meaning to this wall that speaks a larger message about our surroundings and realistic goals to be reminded of for years to come. A message that is so pertinent: 'If the sea is well, If the land is well, the people will thrive'."

Public favourites have included the bee on manuka, Kiwi, Red-band gumboots, flying tui and the ocean scene. The original concepts considered existing photographs that NRC own that Olivia was able to knit together and propose a blended overall scene.

The wall itself, created several challenges; being in a neglected state, jutting out in places and south-facing.

"This posed a new way of thinking about murals and ways around making it work and be long-lasting. Luckily my (Matarau-based) home studio is a large shed as it allowed me to paint on separate panels without the constraints of weather and at any time, so many nights I was singing and painting myself through the evening," says Olivia.

She says the project has taken around 120 hours within six weeks from sign-off to completion, around her full-time work as a sign writer.

"It's been a bit crazy-busy, but in the best way possible. I have been able to reign in support from some beautiful people around me."

A self-confessed perfectionist when it comes to art, Olivia has always been fascinated with artistic exploration and recalls, from the age of four, 'destroying myself emotionally if I was to go over the black outline' of a colouring book.


Aged eight, Olivia attained first place for painting her rendition of the newly-published book Nickety Nacketty Noo Noo Noo by Joy Cowley and Tracey Moroney.

She achieved a scholarship to attend AUT and do Graphic Design, where she also studied photography, later photographing many large events around Auckland before embarking on a career in IT as a back-up to her creative side.

"The last 10 years have actually made me further realise my passion and creative skill that I shouldn't ignore. I was able to offer the IT industry something unique that allowed me to realise the potential of a creative person within these jobs. In saying this, I have come back full circle to a creative-based industry to further support my skills as a creative where I work as an artist after-hours and on the
weekends currently."

Olivia says, she 'truly loves it here' in the 'amazing creative community of Whangarei' and is able to regain at least two hours of her life per day by not sitting in traffic.

With the completion of the NRC project, Olivia will now focus on some exciting murals she is painting from her studio, for Rainbow's End, where she formerly worked as their full-time mural artist. She also has plans for a solo exhibition, along with several smaller works, including a mural for a Hospice shop in Auckland.

"This (NRC) work has been quite different to my other work and I was able to develop a visual poetic narrative across the wall incorporating detail of thought into cultural importance and visual significance. It has been a pleasure to work with NRC to get greater understanding of outcomes that are key and significant to their work throughout the region. It evolved to include multiple focus points and stories that one can take from it."

While there are always hours that can be spent perfecting scenes, Olivia says it's also important knowing when to put down the brush and celebrate the achievement and seeing viewers' reactions reflect how uplifting the work is for her as an artist.

Viewers' reactions have included parents with their kids figuring out geographical locations on the Northland map and Olivia says it has been great to see people off their devices, talking and pointing to the parts of the painting while they wait for their Domino's Pizza from nearby or taking time out from the markets.

"Many are amazed at the level of detail and movement on the wall. Some have said they find areas very mesmerizing, which was humbling to hear, as it just showed the various level of details were being noticed and they were able to speak more to viewers taking them on a visual poetic journey."