It was when Rose Robin heard the sound of voices, the rush of people walking past her and the echoing footsteps along a long hollow tunnel at the Jaffna Railway Station, that images of dolphins leapt into her mind. “I knew I wanted to do marine animals, but honestly it sounded like dolphins, it’s just [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Bringing life under the sea to land

Muralist cum marine conservationist Rose Robin talks to Lanelle Hills Perera about her twin passions and her projects in Sri Lanka

It was when Rose Robin heard the sound of voices, the rush of people walking past her and the echoing footsteps along a long hollow tunnel at the Jaffna Railway Station, that images of dolphins leapt into her mind.

“I knew I wanted to do marine animals, but honestly it sounded like dolphins, it’s just the noises that people were making,” says the 36-year-old painter of her experience.

A long and involved process: Rose painting the mural at the Jaffna railway station (see below). Pictures courtesy Painting Pirates Club

Eighteen days and several hundred brush strokes later, she translated her thoughts through paint, allowing travellers and those passing by this passageway in Jaffna, a glimpse inside her mind of walking through a tunnel underwater. “So we are looking up at the surface and we can see the bellies of the dolphins going past,” she explains while readily admitting that most often she finds herself in a day dream, of being under the sea and looking up at its surface.

Rose wears many titles, muralist painter, humanitarian, globetrotter, documentary film maker – but the one that is closest to her affections is perhaps marine conservationist.

More recently she has begun to live out one of her dreams through her partnership with the National Aquatic Resources Research & Development Agency (NARA) and the Ocean Heritage Trust (OHT). “They want me to do murals with children and adults of marine animals, which is exactly what I love to do,” she says excitedly.

Having worked with OHT for a month, Rose has recently bestowed the Marine Environment Protection Authority, with its first resident blue whale. Inhabiting the walls of the entrance it lies stately with faint rays of light streaming through its painted surface. Floating beneath it — inconspicuous white jelly fish shaped plastic bags – an element which Rose say she’s introducing in a slow and “very delicate way” that will carry with it a subtle message on the consequences of not using plastic bags carefully.

As a marine conservation muralist she is determined to have her paintings technically perfect. Not in terms of an illustration she says but to have her beloved marine mammals represented as they would be in their own habitat. And for those who have yet to see or experience the sheer magnitude of a blue whale she hopes her murals will bring to life the world beneath the sea. “How many people have actually owned a mask (diving goggles) to have a look at that magical world under the sea,” she questions. “So that’s what I want to try and do. I want to do huge public murals of what it looks like under the sea,” she says. “When somebody starts to think something is beautiful they start to love it. And there’s a chemical process that happens inside of them and all of a sudden you want to protect it.”

Born in Wales, Rose lived the first eight years of her childhood in Britain. Then, at the age of eight, a devastating car accident saw both her parents injure their spines. With rehabilitation over many years they are able to walk but it meant travelling a lot and finally at the age of 11 her family moved to France. Severely dyslexic, and having not stayed in one school long enough, it became increasingly difficult for Rose to learn how to read and write. She left school at the age of 12. “I was lucky enough to have parents who understood that if I was going to have to be forced to go to school it would be tortuous for me, because I was so far behind,” she says adding that even then, at the age of 12, she knew what she was good at – and that was drawing. Many times not knowing which hand she was drawing with, her dyslexic condition allowed her to draw with both her left and right hands, a skill which has proved to be beneficial especially on projects where she spends 11 to 12 hours of painting a day. And of the two hands it is her left she prefers. “It’s freer and it seems to have less complexes,” she says with a hearty laugh.

Her work-worn hands tell a tale of long hours and hard work and at a young age very physical work – something Rose has grown accustomed to since the age of 12. She’s plucked fruit, painted houses, plastered ceilings and looked after horses. Incidentally as fate would have it, she would look after the racing horses of an American artiste, Alexandra Wintersteen, who taught at the Parson’s School of Art in Paris. Rose apprenticed under Wintersteen, in art and sculpture in exchange for looking after her horses. And many years on she attributes her artistic confidence at a young age to Wintersteein and Ray Brown, Head of the Art Department at UCLA, who had faith in her young abilities as an artist.

As a muralist Rose understands only too well how effective a medium a mural can be in instilling confidence, bringing communities together, boosting tourism and how powerful a tool of self expression it is. “A wall is in public view for a long time,” she points out. “You can’t hide that confidence you gained that day (by painting it), it’s on the wall for everyone to see. And you can’t take it away and hide it in your room it’s got to be seen by everybody,” she insists.

It is these elements of confidence and community building that she teaches through her ‘self expression’ workshops. Having been in the island since October last year, she’s conducted sessions with children in Negombo and in the north– giving children an intangible lesson and an opportunity of expressing themselves through stop animation storytelling or painting. And often it is the adults that Rose finds lack the confidence in a child’s ability. But in the end she says, “they see what the children have done is beautiful and so it’s teaching other people to have confidence in the child as well.”

Her ‘irrational lack of fear’ and ability to face things with “both feet on the ground and hands on her hips” as she puts it perhaps sums up the persona behind the name she coined for herself as a young artist – ‘the painting pirate’. While painting a 5km long mural in Mexico, even a machine gun bearing officer, proved to be incapable of a standoff with the painting pirate, especially when many local artists who attempted it would be taken away at gun point. She painted it finally with those same artists, she tells us, along with those in the community living in the Arroyo Concreto, or concrete river, the very same people and area of La Paz written about in the book ‘The Pearl’ by John Steinbeck.

The mural breathed a new life into a community and people struggling with poverty. “It was extremely good for the community because tourists started coming down to look at the mural and people in the area started selling tacos on the street, the government came in and fixed the road and put up lights.”

Rose’s ever-expanding body of work has taken her to countries including France, USA, Mexico, Belize, and Canada. But it is the documentary film she made ‘The Fairytale Experiment’ about street artists around the USA, which won two awards: An Indie film festival Award of Merit: and An Accolade: Award of Merit: Feature Documentary, that stands out among her achievements and which she feels has helped her become legitimate.
Next month Rose will travel to Jaffna once again to put her touches to the country’s first labyrinth designed by her -a structure of 22metres x 11metres with 6 feet high walls being set up at the Jaffna old park. She hopes to paint it with the fine arts students of the Jaffna University, and at the same time she sees it as an opportunity for students to have walls in a public area with their art work on it. “It’s a major artistic project, so what I’m trying to do for them is to give them a portfolio, give them their first thing that they can then go off and show to somebody else and that’s their opportunity.”

But for now she’s off to hunt for a wall to tell the stories of the sea and its biggest and best animals in the world that dwell in our local waters. “That in itself is amazing, if any kind of magic exists, that’s magic,” she says animatedly, as she sets off towards the Prime Minister’s Office, in her paint stained boots to inquire if the wall outside needs a mural.

‘Give me a wall to paint’

“I’m desperately looking for walls to paint, for big huge public walls and I’m going to do it as a volunteer. I just need the paint and brushes and you get yourself an amazing mural in the public area and I’d love to do a full length blue whale.”

If you’ve got a wall public wall that Rose can paint please contact her at :

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