Joel ‘The Zookeeper’ Fergie has been garnering some press over the last few years and rightly so. His colourful murals brighten up rural towns and big cities across Australia, from water tanks and silos to school halls and city walls (with permission!), they are an arresting sight.

by Victoria McGuin

Brought up in Brisbane, artist Joel Fergie has spent much of the last ten years travelling around Australia creating commissioned artworks, often a spectacular size, but he has finally put down roots with his wife Kate, in a perfect Sunshine Coast Hinterland spot – Hunchy.

For those who have never heard of this place, Hunchy is nestled between Palmwoods and Montville, with no shops, pubs, cafes or infrastructure to speak of, and this is how most who live there like it. 

“We’ve landed in paradise,” said Joel with a smile.

“Kate and I took a year off in 2018 to travel in our Troop Carrier, which is an iconic 4-wheel-drive for the outback,” shared Joel. 

“I ended up painting a water tower in Cloncurry and Kate worked at the hospital. We both felt embraced by the place and made some strong connections.

“When we returned to Brisbane it no longer had such a strong appeal, so we started looking for somewhere with that community feel, but very much within nature. I stayed in air B&Bs on the Sunshine Coast for about six months and must driven down every street!

“The area around Woombye and Eudlo felt right, but then a house came up in Hunchy, which is very rare, so we went to have a look and fell in love. It’s an old Queenslander surrounded by nature, and it needs lots of love, but Kate and I are slowly doing it up.”

The couple moved up a year ago, shortly after getting married. “We’ve known each other a long time and were supposed to get married three years ago, but then Covid happened,” explained Joel. 

Having settled in, Joel soon found they were surrounded by a supportive, generous and interesting community. 

“Our neighbour is a house painter and was hired to paint part of Montville State School, thanks to a government grant, and I was asked if I would like to be involved by creating a mural for Frammo Hall.”

The mural is a bucolic depiction of life in the hinterland, using a selection of images relevant to the school and the region. 

Montville State School Principal, Adam Montgomery, said, “I asked Joel to create a mural that captured our three sports houses, Baroon, Bunya and Blackall, in a way that only he could do.

“He used the Bunya Pine, Glasshouse Mountains, and Baroon Pocket Dam, which was perfect, plus a large fig tree, something we have plenty of to keep our school cool in the summer!

“The children were amazed when the mural was unveiled, and I am just thrilled at the creativity of Joel’s work.”

On the right-hand side a girl sits under a tree wearing the Montville State School uniform and drawing a picture, which is based on a photograph of one of Joel’s neighbours, who attends the school.

“The school motto is care for yourself, care for others, care for the environment,” said Joel. “I had the ‘self’ element with the girl enjoying her time alone drawing; the ‘environment’ element with everything else you see, but I wasn’t seeing ‘care for others’, until I realised that in the original photo my neighbour had actually drawn herself holding hands with a friend, so I added that to the painting.”

I asked Joel about the process he goes through to create these stunning pieces, often huge and panoramic. 

“All my artwork is regional,” Joel shared. “I love travelling and embedding myself in a place, getting to know the people, the values, the energy of a place.

“Photography is a huge part of what I do. I take photos of the area, make notes, interview community groups and individuals.

“It’s their place, and I may have an idea at the start, but once I share it, they can validate it, or it can go in a completely different direction.

“I must show them a digital mock-up of collaged photos, showing my ideas, the colours, the composition. It’s not my artwork, it’s a shared piece, and I like to get local people involved who are more connected to the community.”

Joel shows me a time-lapse video of his collage of photos for the Montville project, where everything slowly fits into place like a jigsaw, resulting in one panoramic image for the wall. 

When artworks are huge, using machines and cranes to paint, the process involves marking the piece with (what looks to me like) all sorts of lines, dots, and squiggles to work out what to paint where.

I asked how he focusses when working, especially when on something so substantial.

“I have rituals to help me get into the space,” Joel said. “I want to put a bit of magic into it, so I spend time in nature to ground myself. If halfway through working I’m in a bad mood, I stop, as I don’t want that energy in the painting.

“If I don’t connect with the work, I feel I am doing the town a disservice, so I wait until I feel good again. I also like to think of the people I’ve spoken to as I paint, I think it elevates the work.”

As for finally having a home in the hinterland, Joel is optimistic about what’s to come.

“I’ve done some stuff in Nambour, and I can see potential places for artwork across the Range, if people are interested. I know there is a large creative community here and loads of artists, so I’m looking forward to getting more immersed in that.

“I’ve also joined the Montville Woodworkers Guild, which is a fantastic place. They have a giant old saw blade from the mill, about a metre wide, which I will do up, although I don’t know where they’ll hang it!” he laughed.

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