Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Have you Met Miss Coles?

Meet the graduate project of Melanie Coles – a tall, lean figure wearing red-and-white striped beanie that matches a red-and-white striped jumper. It’s Wally, from Where’s Wally – only he’s 16.45 metres long, and he’s lying on a rooftop somewhere in Vancouver, waiting for someone to find him on Google Earth.

Coles, a 22-year-old media arts student in her last year at a well-respected art school in Vancouver, the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, laughs as she tells the story of his conception. “I was just joking away on the phone with my friend when I came up with it. We just laughed it off.”

Indeed, most people would dismiss the idea of creating a gigantic Wally. Coles, however, is also the sort of person who can take a seemingly ridiculous idea, and make it work. What’s more, she makes it work well. Her grade for the project was an A, and media attention has been received from all over the world, from the US to Belgium and from Brazil to Portugal. Wally has been discussed on blogs around the world as well, and her own blog about the project receives over 13, 000 hits each day.

Coles takes to fame well. During our phone conversation, she’s friendly, sweet and endearingly open. “I didn’t think that people would blog about it.” She pauses and giggles. “It’s kinda nerdy.”

Hailing from the small town of Oliver in British Columbia, Canada, Coles grew up in a tight, close-knit family. Her father was a schoolteacher, while her mother stayed at home to look after Coles and her older sister, and would spend each summer baking pies, says Coles.

It sounds pretty idyllic. “It was! I’m was really lucky, I had such a positive childhood.”

So perhaps it’s no surprise that most of her artworks reflect a desire to return to childhood, or even yesteryear. A recent exhibition of hers was described as follows: “The work of Melanie Coles is lovely and smart. It brings back the past and inspires the child in you to get out the glue stick and make a fantasy world from clippings.”

“I guess I am really nostalgic,” she says in a slightly doubtful manner, as if the idea has never occurred to her. But she warms into it. “I’m into images of Americana from, like, the 1930’s to the 1980’s, and also pop culture.”

“But I also do a lot of appropriation, like I take things that already exist and put them with something else, or put them in a situation that might not necessarily exist.”

Like Wally? “Yeah, like taking Wally out of context.”

It’s clear that her giant Wally is a subject dear to her heart. Less than a minute into our phone conversation, she’s describing the process of researching Wally, her graduate project, and her round Canadian vowels becoming more pronounced as her enthusiasm begins to show.

“From about October, I had to go through the logistics. The first thing was figuring out where to put Wally, then testing the materials. It had to be thicker than paper since who knows when Google will take a snapshot? But then it couldn’t be sheets either because we’re in Vancouver, it’s really wet and the sheets would become see-through. Then if we used vinyl the paint might drip off so we went to a discount store and had to find vinyl that was porous.”

“She has the kind of infectious enthusiasm and a leadership style that made it possible for her to get a whole bunch of friends to turn up on a freezing, classical "dark and stormy night" to borrow sand from the beach,” her friend and classmate Nancy Strider said.

Coles explains. “I got all my friends together, because Wally needed to be weighed down, and we went to the beach on a stormy night and filled up some sandbags.”

Fortunately, Coles doesn’t mind storms. Nor does she scare easily. Forced to hire a studio to paint Wally in due to his size, the only place cheap enough was in East Hastings, an area of Vancouver where used condoms and syringes lie scattered on the footpaths and where the HIV infection rate is one of the highest in the Western world. “It’s actually one of the worst neighbourhoods in Canada and I don’t really like it, but the studio was only $100 a month!”

So where is Wally now? “My roof is slanted, so Wally’s actually lying on the rooftop of my part-time job,” she giggles.

“It’s an innovative and creative idea that we all enjoy at the store,” says her co-worker, Johnny Payne, at Zulu Records Store. “She’s one of our favourite employees. I’m a big Waldo fan, and I’m 100 per cent behind her, everyone is. She’s a really smart and creative person – I thought [Wally] would take a lot of work, but she totally got it down exactly how she wanted to.”

Well she’s worked hard at it. Not many people would want to do what is technically homework on the weekends, but Coles did. And as she says, “It’d be the best story to tell – ‘What did you do on the weekend?’ ‘Oh, I painted a giant Waldo.” She laughs.

All this work has paid off and Wally fans from around the world have inundated her with praises and adoration. But Coles, it seems, takes it with the attitude of a girl who still can’t believe her luck. Nancy Strider says, “We were walking home at midnight on the seawall after the school closed, and I pulled out my voice recorder and asked her how it all felt. She talked about how up till a couple of days before she would have been happy with 20 hits, and that now she had gotten 10,000 in a single day. I asked her how that felt, and she said, ‘It's hilarious!’”

Many thanks to Henry Ngo for finding the subject.

Pic: supplied by subject


henree said...

i demand recognition!~

without me you wouldnt have gotten the story xPP

Bonita Silva said...

that was such an interesting story.
i want to go on google earth and find wally now damn it!

Stephanie Kok said...

I tried...but then I gave up.

The world is a big place...

henree said...


1. its in canada.. so that narrows it down quite a bit.

2. Google Map hasnt been updated for a while, i doubt you'll find wally yet until they update it =p

Amy Huynh said...

Well I found the store.
1972 West 4th Ave, Vancouver, BC Canada V6J 1M5

No sign of wally though. musn't be updated yet.