Internationally-acclaimed street artist Adnate has transformed the interior of Goorambat Uniting Church with an artwork of biblical proportions.
The giant mural of Sophia – the personification of divine wisdom in the Old Testament – was created as part of the annual Benalla Wall-to-Wall festival in April. Now in its third year, the festival brings together international and local street artists to create murals throughout Benalla and surrounding towns.
Goorambat Uniting Church is a small congregation located 15 minutes outside Benalla. The country town has a population of just 347 people according to the most recent Census.
More than a thousand visitors descended on the town over the festival weekend as the church opened its doors to art lovers and curious onlookers.
Goorambat Uniting Church member Irene Ham said the mural originated from a conversation she had with a parishioner from a neighbouring church. The parishioner knew street art collectors Sandra Powell and Andrew King, who were scouting for a small country church to host a mural for the festival.
“It turns out Sandra knew Adnate personally and he had an interest in churches because he has a very strong interest and knowledge of the early Renaissance paintings and a desire to do that kind of stuff,” Ms Ham said.
Adnate’s murals can be spotted around the world, from his hometown of Melbourne to the bustling streets of New York. In Australia, he is best known for his stunning portraits of Indigenous Australians that can be found on buildings and silos across Victoria.
Ms Ham was familiar with Adnate’s work with Indigenous communities and, upon further research, discovered he spent a lot of time with Indigenous communities to listen and hear their stories. These conversations formed the inspiration for his portrait murals.
Adnate adopted a similarly collaborative approach with the Goorambat church to come up with a visually striking design that respectfully merged street art with spirituality.
“We had quite a lot of discussions. He gave us a couple of concepts and we gave him some suggestions of what we felt we needed,” Ms Ham said.
“We finally came up with the concept of painting Sophia, which he was quite excited about and we were quite excited about even though we didn’t really know much about her.
“It was a chance for us to learn and to grow and especially in a small country church, you can get stale. So we needed to think about going outside the square.”
The congregation wanted the mural to have religious significance and one of their suggestions was to add a dove next to Sophia.
“We particularly wanted the dove because it is a representation of the Holy Spirit and a symbol of the Uniting Church,” Ms Ham said.
“That flight of movement symbolises the spreading of wings outside the church, spreading the good news out.”
Despite initial trepidation over whether the painting would be a good fit for the church – and concerns about the church becoming too ‘commercialised’ – the congregation decided to embrace the collaboration with an open spirit.
Ms Ham said the project became an opportunity for the congregation to experiment with new ways to reinvigorate the church and its relationship with the community.
“We’re really just learning as we go,” Ms Ham said.
“We thought ‘let’s just be open to something different. If someone comes to us, let’s go with it and be guided by the Holy Spirit and see where we go’.”
The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive. Ms Ham spent the weekend of the festival answering questions from visitors. Many were keen to learn about the story of Sophia while others were content to just admire the mural.
“It’s become quite big – it’s all over the internet and we’ve had more than a thousand people come through the church over the weekend of the festival,” Ms Ham said.
“So many people have felt spiritually enlightened by it. Many people look at all the street art around Benalla and when they come to this small quiet church, they just sit and contemplate.
“It’s just been a lovely experience to see how it calms people.”
Goorambat has recently struggled through hard times with bushfires and economic issues and Ms Ham said she was delighted the church could do something small to bring joy to the community.
“There have been some flat times here in Goorambat, so to see the smiles on people’s faces was really wonderful,” she said.