When Lindena Robb embarked on one of her first large-scale murals, covering a blank wall at Bondi Beach Public School with a colourful rendering of the beach, school and students, the pupils loved it.
“They called me Mrs Muriel,” says Ms Robb, laughing.
The Blackheath resident has since earned the nickname: her work has covered ugly graffiti for a number of Sydney councils, featured at a koala sanctuary in Queensland and at various points in the Mountains (see box).
It’s a job that requires a fair bit of physical fitness.
“The biggest challenge is the weather,” she says. “It can be like painting on an iron - the walls hold the heat. In the wind, sometimes it blows the paint off the brush. And up here you can’t paint in the winter because it’s too cold.”
The constant heat and glare can be challenging and she can’t wear sunglasses because she has to see the paint colours.
But after decades on the job, Ms Robb has it down to a fine art (pun intended).
“I can carry all the gear in two boxes,” she says, which minimises the number of trips she has to make up and down ladders or scaffolding. “And I use plastic bags – the ones the Gazette comes in are great.”
She uses a different brush for each colour, wrapping them in the bags when they aren’t being used.
It saves on water and prevents paint splattering on to the footpath or running into drains. She doesn’t use drop sheets because they blow about and instead uses old towels from a friend who runs a guesthouse.
But she can work only about four hours a day – “because it gets too much standing there”.
Lindena Robb grew up in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and knew she could draw from an early age. She won a colouring-in competition in kindergarten and at 13 was joint winner of a Sydney City Council competition to design an anti-littering poster.
“We were picked up in a Cadillac and taken to meet the mayor. It was embarrassing because I was taller than him.”
She won $150 for herself, $150 for her parents and $150 for the school.
“I went to the House of Merivale to spend mine. I also also got telegrams from Russell Drysdale and William Dobell.”
She left school at 15 at her father’s insistence and decided to try to make a livelihood from her art.
“I made a folder, painted it green, put all my drawings in it, caught a bus and went to the advertising agencies around the city. They all laughed,” she says.
“I ended up getting a job as a freelance commercial artist in Phillip Street. He said, ‘well I’ll employ you because I can see how you can draw’.”
Ms Robb married very young and raised three children, all the while continuing her art.
“I painted at home. I did commissions on the kitchen table. I also did cleaning, sold Amway, sold Avon.”
In 1983, Bondi Beach Public School, which her children attended, was looking for someone to paint a new blank wall.
“I was on the P&C, did the tuckshop,” Ms Robb says. “I said, ‘I can do that’. They didn’t pay me a cent, though they paid for the scaffolding.
“It was great fun and the kids adored it. I had a banner calling it ‘Lindy’s mural’ and the kids after that called me Mrs Muriel.”
Thirty years later, the school principal contacted her to see if she would return to restore the mural to celebrate the school’s 90th anniversary.
“It was so special and to be paid, too! She rang and said we want to pay you this time. I was overwhelmed by the support from her and the kids and parents. It was beautiful, a real treat.
“This time I painted the kids different colours – back then they were all white; this time I painted some African and Asian kids.”
Ms Robb got into mural painting as a more economically viable way to make ends meet.
“I wasn’t doing the painting and then trying to sell it. It was better to find out what people wanted and do that. And you could say I want a 50 per cent deposit.”
She teamed up with fellow artist (and fellow Blackheathen), Robin Martin. “Robin’s skilled at realistic work; I’m more make it up and play with it.”
She feels one of the great pleasures of doing such work is the interaction with the public.
A recent commission was for a mural on the toilet block in Mt Victoria Park, into which she incorporated some of the region’s history.
“It was one of the most joyful jobs I’ve ever had”, she says, because all the children would come over after school to watch her progress.
Ms Robb is a passionate people person. When she takes off her artist’s hat, she plays host at the Welcome Table in town.
Every Friday from 3.30-5pm, she takes her place in the dining room at the New Ivanhoe Hotel, welcoming anyone who is keen to make new friends.
It has eased the path of many a newcomer. There’s even been a couple of relationships formed.
“I love that. I feel like a mother to all of them there.”