Wagtail wonders lift community spirit
ARTIST Mike McLean breaks into a smile as he does a quick mental count of how many wagtail paintings he has produced in recent years.
“Oh, it’s well over a thousand blocks now,” he muses, looking around his colourful home studio in Torquay where his bird-inspired creations are perched on a shelf.
Mike explains the wagtail stencil started out as a visual signature – or tag – which appeared on his large-scale murals and soon after as stand-alone artworks.
“I started offering it to people for free for their front fences with the goal of doing 100 houses and stopping there,” he recalls.
“I think I got to about 340 houses locally and it just kept going. I then came across the idea of making the blocks as gifts and essentially starting giving them out for free – almost like a business card.”
Since then, his modest wagtail project has evolved into so much more – for both Mike and the happy Surf Coast locals who snap up one of his delightful creations free-of-charge.
“The wagtails are so inoffensive and have so much personality that it’s just brought a lot of happiness, fun and joy to the community,” he says.
“That for me is the driving factor now.
“I hear of children playing spot the wagtail – I hear hundreds of different stories from families about their own version of that joy from the wagtail and I love that.
“It’s just become this thing and I think with COVID the last two years we are all seeking out joy in our lives and, for me, I’m very thankful that the wagtails have been able to help people with what we are going through as a community.
“For me personally it has brought a lot of satisfaction and happiness making other people happy.”
The wagtail movement has even caught on beyond the Surf Coast, with orders flying in from Tasmania, Sydney, Coolangatta and Perth in the past few weeks since Mike started selling them for $20 (including postage) to those outside the Surf Coast area.
But he is determined to keep offering the wagtail blocks for free to locals.
“There’s not much in our lives you can get for free anymore, we’re so governed, we’re so controlled, we’re all seeing that now with the lockdowns,” he says.
“For me it’s like a hobby that brings joy.”
In fact, trying to personally deliver them got too big a job so Mike – through social media channels – invited local residents to drop by his house in Eton Road to collect one for themselves.
“I found it almost impossible to keep up with deliveries and I didn’t like disappointing people who were waiting so long,” he recalls.
“I thought it was a lot easier for me to put them in the front garden and if people want them, they’ll make the effort to come and get them.”
And they did just that.
“I’ll put 10 out in the morning and by 11am they are all gone. I’ll put another lot out and they’ll be all gone, so I’m literally doing 30 a day and that’s been going on for a couple of months now – it’s gone bananas. It’s pretty cool.”
His only request is that people take just one each so no-one misses out.
Beyond the wagtail blocks, Mike is a sought-after artist who is known for his colourful large-scale murals and his portrait work.
His brightly hued portraits of women’s faces, in particular, are held in collections from London to New York. He also does custom portraits of people and pets.
Mike says he fell in love with art after choosing the subject in Year 11 because he thought it would be “easy”.
Instead, he took the subject seriously and his passion for art grew from there.
“Like most people with a thing that you love, I’ve had my ups and downs but I’ve just kept at it and although I am quite driven, I’ve never relied on my art because I don’t want to ruin it with a commercial pressure,” he says.
“I get a great deal of satisfaction out of people who have sought me out, looked at my work and purchased it. It’s a massive compliment and I am always very grateful and thankful for their interest.
“I get a lot more joy out of the wagtails though – I think because it is completely non-commercial and that’s what makes it so special.”
Mike now teaches art part-time at Northern Bay Secondary after more than 15 years spent working with disengaged youth both at home and in the UK as an outreach support worker, disability support worker and art teacher.
Beyond his creative pursuits, Mike is also a dedicated Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor in Torquay and a doting dad to his kids, 15-year-old Fern and Boston, 10.
He has even recruited his youngest to help with the wagtails.
“The best thing I ever did was moving down here 12 years ago – the best thing,” Mike says.
“The Surf Coast as a region has incredible artists – we’ve just got such an amazing and concentrated pool of creatives, it’s actually ridiculous.
“I’ve never seen anything like it and I lived overseas for nine years and travelled a lot in my life.
“We are very lucky here. There is something very special happening on the Surf Coast.
“I’m hugely thankful for the community support and everything that has come out of the wagtails.”
Follow Mike’s journey on Instagram @mikemcleanartist and also @willythewagtail.