Stunning scenes ranging from New York’s Central Park to ancient Rome based on a 17th-century masterpiece have been created in an extensive mural in a hidden walled garden in an Inverness neighbourhood.
Located off Grant Street, in Merkinch, and overlooked by neighbouring multi-storey flats, the garden’s unprepossessing exterior walls give no indication of the remarkable secrets inside.
Visitors stepping over the threshold are transported into another world as they are greeted by the sight of captivating and colourful works of art.
They have been created by artist Zoe Willis France who used the space as a sanctuary during a difficult time in her life.
She has painted them for RoKzKool Academy, a grassroots charity which offers music, sport and fun activities to children, but has also been providing thousands of lifeline food and emergency packs during the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier this year, it moved into Merkinch Hall on a temporary basis.
But the building along with its walled garden, which previously resembled a rubbish tip, are due to be demolished – and the murals will be lost forever.
Ms Willis France, who is a full-time carer for her nine-year-son John, painted the images as a way of giving something back to RoKzKool Academy as she got her life back on track.
“Myself and my son, because of a transitionary period, have been in a vulnerable situation which meant we came to Inverness,” she said.
“We were looking for stability and support.
“In that sense, RoKzKool have been key in giving us that after a period of instability.
“For me, it has allowed me to become myself.”
Having always dabbled in art, Ms Willis France initially trained in textile design at the Heriot-Watt School of Textile and Design after leaving school, but later studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London where she learnt about stage sets and theatre design.
“I have always loved theatre and I have always loved painting and it gave me the chance to be involved in both,” she said.
She applied the techniques she had learned when she created the mural which she also found therapeutic.
“There are aspects of my life which are still quite stressful, and painting this mural has been key to me getting through a difficult time,” she said.
“It is like a sanctuary in a physical sense and in a metaphorical sense. It is somewhere I can go and turn it into a place of magic.”
The contrasting scenes feature New York’s iconic Central Park and a distinctive yellow taxi which cleverly connects to a view of the Kessock Bridge and the Moray Firth with its wildlife including a dolphin leaping out of the water.
Another wall is taken up with the image of a Tuscan villa with a formal garden while in another corner is a dramatic image based on Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula painted in 1641 by Claude Lorrain.
“Because it is a garden for children and young people, I thought it would be nice to make into a space to go in different directions and create a bit of fantasy,” she explained.
She said before training with RADA, she would have seen a big blank wall and wondered where to begin painting.
“It makes you learn techniques and nothing becomes an obstacle,” she said.
“It starts to make you think anything is possible.”
With plans now in the pipeline to paint the final wall in different colours with the help of youngsters, she hopes they will take a sense of magic from the garden.
Although it will be demolished in the future, Ms Willis France remains philosophical saying that in the same way theatre staging is also transitional.
“Nothing lasts forever, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t magic – that can’t be taken away,” she reflected.
Rod Shannon, a director with RoKzKool Academy, recalled the state of the garden before its transformation.
“It was like a scene from a Steven Spielberg film,” he said. “There were toys lying around and dolls with eyes hanging out.”
Areas had now been planted with flowers and vegetables while one local resident had donated some sunflowers.
Co-founder Kay Ewen described it as the city’s best kept secret and said since its creation it had not been targeted by vandals.
“Neighbours have seen it coming to life,” she said. “It is such a beautiful work of art.”
John West, a patron of RoKzKool, said the murals were “absolutely stunning” and believed other artists would be astounded, too.
“Zoe has transformed this space,” he said. “It has been designed to be recreational.”
He added when the charity moved into the building, the arrangement with Highland Council was that it was temporary and would be on a month-by-month basis from September.
It is now looking for new premises.
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