To the hundreds of construction workers working in the new wing of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Jo-Anne McDonald-Singh was the lollipop lady, a giver of advice, a keeper of secrets and the miss Woolloomooloo manners.
It is unusual for a construction worker to be recognized with a portrait in the gallery or museum they helped build. That’s about to change when the North Wing opens on Saturday.
A portrait of McDonald-Singh, the site’s traffic control manager, wearing a helmet and holding a stop sign (also known as the lollipop), is one of nine panels in a major new work by Melbourne artist Richard Lewer.
Lewer says it pays tribute to the largely unrecognized efforts of hundreds of workers in the North Wing over four years, including during COVID-19.
McDonald-Singh was “like a mother to these young builders, the young builders, the plumbers, the scaffolders, the gossips, the crazy ones, everybody.”
In the panels and a set of drawings commissioned by the Art Gallery, Lewer also captured Smriti, who prevented the spread of COVID-19 at the site, and three steel repairmen: Sharmoon Tumupu (aka Sharkboy) and his companions. Luke Hollard and Liam Fearn, who loved their ghetto blaster.
Lewer also wanted to capture the communities that formed on the site and the little goodnesses that flourished. Sharkboy caught fish for McDonald-Singh. Dave Robins, a construction worker for Richard Crookes Construction, is pictured working in the new gallery on a giant underground oil tank, but also daily watering a small plant outside the dining room. Glenn Baldwin, health and safety officer for Richard Crookes Construction, encouraged McDonald-Singh to study for a certificate IV in occupational health and safety; this led to her current position as corporate health, safety and quality consultant for Liberty Industrial, a demolition company.
Lewer also drew John Oliver, the managing director of Rammed Earth Constructions, who made the massive rammed earth wall where the panels hang.