Town’s painted past

Located only an hour’s drive north of Launceston is a township jam-packed with people with eccentric practices and outgoing love of everything that is life and history of their special little town of Sheffield.

Sheffield resident Brian Inder was inspired by the story of Chemainus, a small Canadian town that rescued itself from ruin.

Spurred on by love, he took a country town at the end of the 1980s recession and economic reforms from ruin to a vibrant township, with its rich history painted on the walls of its buildings set up as an outdoor art gallery.

Mr Inder worked with Sheffield residents to combine arts and tourism to reinvent the town.

“I saw the tail end of this successful town; there were still a lot of people hanging on, because they knew the good times,” Mr Inder said.

Mr Inder described how back in the 70s and 80s, Sheffield was a fantastic place to live beneath the mountain, among prospering farms.

“It was one of the most perfect places in the world to live and have kids,” he said.

Mr Inder and his late wife, originally from the mainland, visited Tasmania before moving here.

In their travels they were told that there was nothing in Sheffield, that it was a “desert, even the hippies were starving”.

ART TALES: Sheffield is now known as the town of murals. Pictures: Kendall Boyd

ART TALES: Sheffield is now known as the town of murals. Pictures: Kendall Boyd

After not being impressed by Hobart or the rest of Tasmania on their vacation they visited the small township.

“And here we were in The Sound of Music country”, Mr Inder laughed.

“It’s quite mad but it’s purely Tasmanian.”

Mr Inder recalled the town’s heyday fondly: “The people prospered, but then big business moved in, to take control and keep the money for themselves.”

Mr Inder vibrantly expressed, gesturing wildly with his hands and talking so quick and passionately that he loses his breath, about how this is his own personal war against the large corporations.

He strongly believes and argues for small business ownership so that everyone can have a go.

He explained that, at its worst, nobody cared about the town; agriculture and small family-run farms were in decline.

There wasn’t much industry in for the area to sustain itself, and the council didn’t have any money to throw at it, and since there was no business at Sheffield, why bother?

“We let it become a ghost town,” he said.

In the late 70s and the beginning of the 80s, the town was “very much derelict” with road signs battered, knocked down or fallen over.

“Nobody cared. Footpaths and roads were all broken up, you fell into pot holes, you could break your leg stepping off the gutter,” Mr Inder said.

They rebuilt the town around the marvellous paintings. Coffee shops and gift shops opened ... We gave them a reason to come, to come and see our paintings and our murders and our famous people and all this and our ghosts.

Sheffield resident Brian Inger

“My problem is that I don’t like seeing things run down and opportunities fading.

“Chemainus is a town with a parallel history to Sheffield, of prosperity until the timber yard closed and money was no longer flowing in, so they painted the history of the town, on the town itself.

“They rebuilt the town around the marvellous paintings. Coffee shops and gift shops opened just like here in Sheffield.

“I stole the idea straight out - I am the first one to admit it - I took it and applied it here.

“We gave them a reason to come, to come and see our paintings and our murders and our famous people and all this and our ghosts. And it worked just like it worked in Chemainus”.

Mr Inder chuckled, almost spilling his coffee, about how much the community hated the idea when he first put it forward (but) “some people knew we had to do something and it had worked in Chemainus”.

The idea was put to a public vote and passed. However it was not unanimously.

“Those who didn’t like it tried to stop it, they insulted the artist and groaned about it,” Mr Inder said.

The first tourist bus came through town to look at the murals and spent $500 at the local country store.

 “(It was) more business then they received in a normal week,” Mr Inder said, adding that the town’s remaining residents became more co-operative.

“It worked and succeeded.”

After the success of the first mural there was a public meeting.

“They all wanted to congratulate themselves, about half way through the proceedings I got dragged in – there is a funny thing that happens at those times – there is an old quotation that sums it up – ‘failure is an orphan but success has a thousand fathers’ – you would have been surprised at how many fathers turned up to take credit,” Mr Inder said.

“All I said was, ‘I told you it would work and it has’.”

The first town mural was painted in Sheffield in December 1986. Since then more than 60 murals depicting the area's rich history and beautiful natural scenery have been painted on walls throughout the town and roadside buildings.

You can experience the history of Sheffield expressed through art, as you wander through Tasmania's Outdoor Art Gallery.

Now there are many new people living in Sheffield “bringing their own special touch to this town just like Chris and Rini over at their coffee shop, Fudge‘n’Good Coffee,” Mr Inder said.

Kendall Boyd is part of the Youth Network.