‘It’s good to be alive’: groundbreaking New Zealand artist brings light and joy to city streets

“It’s good to be alive,” artist Sallie Culy says as she finishes a ham and cheese sandwich at one of the many cafes she visits most days in Wellington. “It really is good to be alive.”

Sallie’s words, like much of how she interacts with the world, are life-affirming. As a person, and as an artist, she celebrates connection, imagination, joy and the daily interactions that make life shimmer. Her approach is a welcome reprieve at a time when the world grapples with tragedy, and the city Sallie loves – Wellington – is still catching its breath after a weeks-long protest that ended with parliament’s grounds burning.

Sallie, who was born with Williams Syndrome – a rare genetic condition that causes developmental and learning disabilities – has become a familiar face to Wellingtonians. As the title of her first ever public art exhibition suggests – ‘Hello to Everybody’ – Sallie is one of the friendliest people in the city.

“I love the people saying ‘hi’ and ‘hello’,” she says of the wide community she has created for herself.

Sallie leads a relatively independent life, and when she isn’t volunteering at the Wellington City Mission and the Holy Cross School in Miramar, singing in the Wellington Community Choir or chatting to her wide array of friends in the capital’s shops and cafes, she is making art.

Just around the corner from the cafe, on Courtenay Place, one of the city’s main strips, are a series of light boxes nearly a storey high. Displayed within them are Sallie’s works – felt-pen and crayon drawings featuring brightly coloured flowers, cats with attitude, skaters in orange tracksuits, pop-stars such as Rhianna, platters of food, and depictions of friends and family.

The drawings are bold, playful, and an utterly joyful homage to the city she has called home for her 41 años.

“It’s just love and it’s hopes and dreams for other people because they are trying not to struggle,” Sallie says of her work.

The revolving light box exhibitions have been a part of Wellington’s public art programme since 2008 and Sallie is the first artist with an intellectual disability to have her work exhibited there.

“But we’re sure Sallie won’t be the last,” said Eve Armstrong, the council’s senior arts adviser.

Sallie has enjoyed drawing since she was a child, but has had no formal artistic training. Five years ago, she started visiting her brother – award-winning photographer Harry Culy – for weekly drawing sessions, and built up a large portfolio of work. Harry and Sallie then contacted Wellington city council with an exhibition proposal.

“This exhibition in a larger way may be a public forum for the often overlooked unique talents that can be found in people with disabilities,” the proposal read.

On receiving the proposal, Armstrong said: “It was engaging and joyful, and we felt Sallie’s drawings and perspective on life in Pōneke [Wellington city] would spark interest and conversation among audiences.”

The response to the exhibition has been beyond what she could have imagined. “So many people have felt a personal connection to the show through knowing Sallie and having seen her around the city over the years.”

“One of the most moving experiences I have heard is of a group of students visiting the light boxes exhibition, as they recognised Sallie from the media but also had a student at their school with Williams Syndrome.”

It is incredibly difficult for people with disabilities to get into art spaces, says Harry, who as a photographer, understands the art world.

“There has been a lot of exclusion in past in those spaces – giving more diverse voices to that space is really important.”

Sallie, who is “really honoured and really proud” with the exhibition hopes that displaying work of an artist with a disability will foster connection and understanding between people: “because if people understand me, I can understand them – you know, we can just sit down and learn to bond”.

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