Molly Mural: The whole city is a canvas

Image credit: Mercedes Polo Portillo

Rosanna Spence visits mural artist Molly Hawkins in her Easton studio to learn more about her creative process ahead of three exciting upcoming projects appearing across Bristol.

Sitting across from Molly Hawkins – known for adorning buildings, interiors, sports courts and more with joy-inducing kaleidoscopic paintings – in her Easton studio feels a little like stepping through the looking glass and into her collage-like world, soaked in a positive colour palette.

Her studio, much like the cityscape outside, is a canvas in itself. The walls are covered in her bold and bright murals – and rightly so. Even the way she had organised a huge pile of cardboard boxes along one wall needed a double take to realise they weren’t actually a smart vintage dresser adorned with plants and lamps.

“They’re full of paint, for a huge upcoming project at the new EQ building by Temple Meads station,” she explains. “It’s going to be my biggest mural yet – 22m x 15m. The developers took into consideration that the offices have been built on top of the site of an old letterpress. So, they built the exterior architecture inspired by the shapes of the old typesetter trays, which are those little wooden cubes people now often display trinkets in.

“I was invited to continue the story and develop the heritage of the site into a public art mural. The design has been brewing for a year and a half, and now we’re at the stage when we’re going to be installing it soon, which is very exciting.”

Hawkins explains her process of finding inspiration for this type of mural – she visited the Bristol archives to dig out old papers in a heritage hunt for tools, historic forms, and shapes from the local area to collect stories, motifs and textures that have been woven into her final design. For this particular project, Malaika Kegode’s poetic interpretation of the local area has been incorporated within Hawkins’ design.

North Road Primary School (credit: Sarah Stillie)

Home is where the art is
You may have already spotted Hawkins’ signature style on walls and surfaces around the city (she’s created around 15 pieces here so far) and beyond. Her work can be seen across cities in the UK and internationally in Mexico, India, Colombia and throughout Europe, as well as being featured by BBC News, Design Week and Observer Magazine (she has also worked with UK brands including Lucy & Yak, Fat Face, Finisterre and Surfers Against Sewage.)

But Hawkins’ favourite Bristol pieces so far are two houses she’s painted in Easton and St George. Does she feel like it’s a big responsibility to paint a mural on the front of someone’s house?

“I was thrilled to transform someone’s home,” she recalls. “Instead of feeling the pressure, I just feel honoured, delighted and excited. I love that it’s so unusual in that type of familiar-looking landscape to suddenly notice a patterned painted house.
“I like that it’s a peep at the identity of the people who live there. The owners have shared photos with me of all the notes neighbours had put through their door, saying ‘thank you for brightening up our street’.”

Hawkins loves using spray paints to create her murals outside – and next on her wish list is to try a new paint that can combat harmful carbon dioxide, from the surrounding environment.

“Spray paints are really fun to use – you end up using your entire body to paint, which feels like a dance, moving my arms about trying to get precise curves.

“Whereas when hand painting with a brush, I feel like I don’t get the chance to move as freely, as I’m too wary of dripping paint everywhere.”

As well as the new EQ building, Bristolians will also be able to soon spot new work from Hawkins on Stapleton Road, Easton – as part of a community project with Eastside Community Trust and Studio Meraki, with ideas coming from three workshops with local residents who shared their stories of the area with her through the joy of their own art – and another piece on a car park by Temple Studios and Temple 1852 near Temple Meads.

Signature style
Hawkins arrived at her design process via a frustrating reaction to her attempt at designing a corrugated warehouse in Liverpool, where she was based at University and thereafter, before making the move to Bristol.

“Until that point, I’d always designed on my iPad on top of a photograph of the building. I would get frustrated at having one layer to work with. I’m not very tech-savvy, and I always wished I could reach into the screen to drag and drop elements of the design by hand. Then the penny dropped when sharing the frustration with a friend, that I needed to be playing with physical shapes on a bigger scale. For the next piece, I used big sheets of card – chopping them up and playing with them.”

Now, every mural Hawkins creates has a collage that goes with it (she points to a drawer that she says is crammed with hundreds of collages), often with one fragment of the collage blown up to create the final full-scale artwork. Clients will explain relevant themes, stories, shapes and textures to be translated into her designs. For Hawkins, it feels like “pattern playing on architecture”.

Though this refreshing process felt new to Hawkins, it wasn’t too different to how she created and communicated as a child.

“It took me quite a long time to start talking,” she explains. “So, my language was gathering little bits of materials and fabrics. My mum said I was making patterns with things and finding scraps from random places to create arrangements in the house and garden. My parents were very understanding and supportive of my creativity and need to express myself through art from a young age.”

Making murals
With a background in theatre, set design and puppetry, Hawkins made the move to murals during the pandemic. Though she had painted a few public art mural installations before, she says it was Bristol’s post-lockdown “need for spaces to be transformed in a positive way, because our environment had become so unusual. A lot more people were inventing little spaces outside where you could sit in separated seating. Around that time, things really picked up for me.

“I started to work with lots of local organisations and businesses, like Om Burger on Stokes Croft, where they built a pop-up seating area. It was quite a slow transition into doing murals and public art pieces, but it really excites me, and I love seeing the way it brings communities together, transforms the environment and makes you feel happier. Colour has the great power to bring joy and spark a little inspiration.”

Hawkins believes that Bristol’s generally positive reception to street art and murals is because the city’s people have a lot to say.

“Murals are a perfect way for people to showcase their art and their message,” she continues. “Festivals in the city, like Upfest, have helped people grow in their practice. I remember when I took part in my first ever Upfest five years ago. I painted something that probably isn’t that recognisable to what I create now, but I was so pleased to have a platform where I could experiment and be part of this big community.

“I met so many amazing people there and saw the diverse work everyone creates, considering we’re basically all using the same tools. I think Upfest has done a lot for supporting women and giving them a voice within the street art scene.

“Bristol nourishes creating your own identity. That’s what I love about it. I’ve always felt accepted here as myself, creative and queer. It’s definitely a place that welcomes art and creativity.”

St George house (credit: Molly Hawkins); @mollymural