Jasmine Craciun's story is truly an Australian story. She's a proud Barkindji and Malyangapa woman, who calls Newcastle home but spends a great of time in country where she has family in Wilcannia on the Darling River.
She graduated from the University of Newcastle with a degree in visual communication design in 2018, but couldn't land a full-time job because she had no experience. So, like so many other artists, she started freelancing.
Now, three years later, she's landing significant projects, like the recently completed five-panel mural on the Eaton apartment building on Station Street, Wickham. Next week, she will be a featured artist at Illuminate Adelaide. Her visual fingerprints are increasingly part of Newcastle, from NAIDOC week banners to pre-school murals to the Big Picture festival.
"It's tricky sometimes," she says over a cup of hot chocolate at West End cafe in Wickham, only metres from her giant mural on the side of the Eaton building. The mural, commissioned by developer Thirdi and managed by Catalyst Project Consulting with cultural advice from Luke Russell and the Guraki Aboriginal Advisory Committee of Newcastle Council, tells the visual story of Indigenous people coming to Newcastle for a corroboree.
"I set up my freelancing as a side hustle, and it's now my job job, so I'm kind of doing all the business stuff backwards," Craciun says. "I wouldn't have it any other way. I feel so lucky to do what I do. I grew up, always loving art, I didn't see myself being able to do what I did today. I didn't realise. I guess I didn't see how valued it was...
"I think I felt you would have to keep it art, as a hobby, something you did on the side. And the fact that people are valuing my work enough to want to see it on the side of a big building is really special. I'm so over the moon. I can't even explain how blown away I am with the job. I don't know, it makes my family so proud. It makes me so proud."
Nick Whitton, senior project manager with Catalyst, says the mural on the Station Street side of the Eaton building was part of Thirdi's public art commitment for its development. It will tie into another major artwork, a mural by Blak Douglas, which will be installed in August on completion of the Stella on Hannell apartment building in Wickham. It will appear on the Dangar Street side of the Stella building. Douglas is a leading Indigenous artist, a winner of the Kilgour Prize and an Archibald Prize finalist.
"We are very pleased and very proud of telling the story of the local aboriginal people," Whitton says.
Craciun worked solo on painting the mural over almost three weeks, completing it at the end of May. She used a scissorlift for access, as the five panels, which each measure about four metres by three metres, are on the first storey of the building.
I set up my freelancing as a side hustle, and it's now my job job, so I'm kind of doing all the business stuff backwards. I wouldn't have it any other way. I feel so lucky to do what I do. I grew up always loving art, I didn't see myself being able to do what I did today. I didn't realise. I guess I didn't see how valued it was...Jasmine Craciun
"My work is that travelling from the river, following the river from the freshwater into the brackish water into the ocean, so you can see that colour change," Craciun says. "It was about how to express that, in a contemporary way, that is also acknowledging and celebrating the history of our city, which is really special.
"Obviously, with a lot of my work, I try to push the boundaries on what people envision as aboriginal art, because - I think that I've said this before in other interviews - but everything I create is aboriginal art, being an aboriginal person. Being able to create work that is meaningful and tells a story, but also is outside of the stereotypes of what people imagine it to be. It's really special."
Craciun loves graphic design and textiles; murals have been a new challenge. For mural art, it's a case of being in the right place at the right time, and she's learned a lot on the job and gives credit to other artists in Newcastle for helping her develop her skills.
She credits artists Brett Piva and Ellie Hannon as great mentors for her, and praises Haymes Paints for making paint more affordable by doing small pigment pots that she can mix herself with white paint.
Cracium also pays tribute to UP & UP, an art and youth mentoring organisation in Newcastle run by Shane Kennedy and Faith Curtis. Some of her first murals were with them.
"They are a big reason I have the confidence to do what I do," she says.
There's another dimension yet to come with the Station Street mural, Craciun says: "I am creating an animation at the moment that will make what is currently on the wall move."
Imagine, pulling into the Newcastle interchange on a train, and seeing the mural and a giant QR code on the building. You aim your phone camera at the code, and it triggers an animation of the mural, with people moving, fish jumping.
"It might just be an exciting addition," she says.
Many of her creative ideas come to her just before sleep, and she keeps a notebook by her bed to keep track of them.
She says, "Often times, I'll think of something I really want to tell a story about, and then it's just about how do you visualise that story, or that thing find really important you really want to tell people about. How do I actually turn that into something that can also be visual."
Craciun loves living in Newcastle. She also likes to travel, but the pandemic has kept her grounded here. She considered going to Europe, to spend time with her dad's side of the family in Romania and Austria, and try to latch on to a job in a studio. But the pandemic shut down that idea.
Yet, she also spends as much time as possible in western NSW, with her family there.
"Long-term, I see myself eventually being out west for an extended period of time," she says. "My mum has just moved to Wilcannia this year. Both my parents are teachers. Mum is living there, teaching at the moment. And I get to go a lot more with her there. This year already I've been there about four times.
"My plan was to live there this year, I just got too busy. Now I'm moving between places and I think my environment is a big inspiration for what I do, especially my own personal work that I do, is often inspired by my family out west, and the landscape. And the colour in the land - like the pinks, the reds, the oranges."
She is torn by her love of Newcastle and love of the west.
"I grew up by the sea, and the ocean is such a big part of who I am," she says. "I feel really drawn to the ocean, but traditionally my family is from the river. I'm so drawn to where I'm from as well. I think a lot of my personal work deals with identity, and place, and what that means to you, and how it inspires or influences you and your world. And for me, my artmaking. It's really a big part of what I do."