Featured in Capital #82. Subscribe to get the real thing here.
If Sallie Culy isn’t working at Clyde Quay afterschool care or singing in the Wellington Community Choir, she’s catching the bus from her Miramar flat of 22 years into the city to hang out with her friends over hot chocolate and fizzy drinks.
Little Beer Quarter, Fusion, Iko Iko, Paper Bag Princess, Good as Gold, Area 51, Cheapskates, Milk Crate, Swimsuit, and Boardertown are among the Wellington icon’s favourite hotspots.
“I love hanging out with people I’ve never met before and getting to know them. I love getting to know people from different countries,” the 41-year-old says.
Her brother Harry Culy – artist, curator, book designer, and recipient of the Marti Friedlander Photographic Award – says his sister has always been “super independent, friendly, and creative”.
That’s why, after several years of Sallie’s going to Harry’s house every Tuesday to draw with felt-tip pens on A4 paper, the pair decided to apply to the Wellington City Council to display Sallie’s work on the revolving lightboxes on Courtenay Place.
“We didn’t have any idea where it was going to go, but I thought these drawings are amazing, unique and different. Over time her drawings started to stack up. We had a box with hundreds of drawings in it. They bring both me and Sallie heaps of joy and I wanted to nurture that a little bit.”
Sallie was born with Williams syndrome. She and Harry make a great team, as he is particularly conscious of the barriers people with intellectual disabilities have in the arts.
“People with intellectual disabilities are often excluded from art spaces as there are so many hoops to go through,” says Harry. “Sometimes it’s not all that accessible. I live in that world and I’ve started to learn how it works.” He had some experience writing proposals, and was delighted when this one was accepted.
“I thought the public might get the same amount of joy from Sallie’s drawings that our family does. She loves Wellington and the many friends she has here. It’s a visual diary of her life. We’re looking through her eyes, and it is a chance to see a different side of her.”
The eldest of four children, Sallie grew up with her parents in Mount Victoria. She always had an affinity for drawing, which is no surprise as art seems to be in her DNA.
“The wider family is an arty bunch, for sure,” says Harry. Her cousin, Katie Melody Rogers, who was born in the same house and on the same day as Sallie, is an Auckland creative and stylist.
Sallie’s mum and dad, a teacher and economist, are hugely supportive of Sallie’s endeavours and Harry says they are chuffed with the drawings.
People are the main focus in the drawings – family, friends, “or people that Sallie loves through the screen”. That includes Rihanna, Beyoncé – Sallie especially loves Beyoncé – Ricky Martin, and Dr Warner from Shortland Street.
Then there are flowers, family members including their dad John, Aunty Jan, and Harry’s cat, and her skateboarding mates.
Meat also features in Sallie’s drawings – specifically hamburgers and roast chicken, which Sallie loves. “Sallie’s a big meat-eater. We don’t eat a lot of meat in my flat but when Sallie comes over to draw we’ll put on a roast or cook up some spaghetti bolognese.”
Skateboarders have always made Sallie welcome. They too hang out in the streets as their playground, Harry says. “We look out for each other because we care about where we live and we want to help the city,” says Sallie.
Harry and his brother were big skaters in their teens and early twenties. Now Sallie says she goes to the skatepark at Waitangi Park “heaps – if the weather is good I go every day. They’re my mates. Skating is cool. I’ve been trying to learn from my friends and they’ve taught me some tricks. I care about them and they care about me.”
Hello to Everybody will light up Courtenay Place until 25 May. It was a long time coming. “I picked the drawings that I liked but it was hard to think what they would look like blown up. This happened ages ago,” Sallie says.
Then Covid-19 came to New Zealand, which Sallie found extremely hard. “I hated the lockdowns,” she says. “We need to help save this town. People need to be patient and honest with their health. I don’t want to do another lockdown.”
Harry says Sallie’s always been a social butterfly. “People with Williams syndrome are super social. They have a social proclivity that’s completely foreign to me. I’m not the same. I’m super introverted.”
Harry made an instagram account @salliespics to post pictures of Sallie’s art, and he has been overwhelmed by support from the community.
“Your art is revolutionary, I love it,” one commenter said. Another said: “Congratulations Sallie!!! You are such an icon.”
Since its inception in January, the account has gathered over 2000 followers. “It’s crazy. Some photos have 100 comments. I don’t know these people but Sallie does and they all love her and are pretty proud.”
Sallie too is delighted with the exhibition: “I feel pretty good. It’s awesome. It’s cool to see them huge in the street.”
There’s been so much interest that the pair plan to make a book of Sallie’s work “but it’s still a few years away,” according to Harry.