Local artist Irene Messia takes on mythology of the sea at this year’s SWELL

The Gold Coast artist is creating three sandstone sculptures as a part of a work that will explore the mythology of the sea for this year’s SWELL Sculpture Festival.

Ulysses, also known as Odysseus, is the legendary Greek king of Ithaca and the hero of Homer’s epic poem ‘The Odyssey’ and Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, as well as countless other famous stories. To Gold Coast artist Irene Messia, he symbolises a traveller; our own inner journey towards self-discovery.

Having already tackled the subject of Ulysses’ Shipwreck on paint and canvas, she decided to explore the subject with sandstone sculpture for the 2021 SWELL Sculpture Festival.

“I’ve been working on these stones for almost five months now — six days a week and six to 10 hours per day,” Irene tells us. “But I’ve probably been working on the concept for more than a year: studying, reading, drawing, thinking and thinking again. Researching the truth behind the piece.”

For Irene, that truth is, in many ways, a reflection of her own journey.

“Creating ‘Ulysses’ Shipwreck’ is giving me the chance to reflect on myself and on this existence,” she muses.

“It is giving me the privilege to work with ancient stones, which have come straight from the earth after hundreds of millions of years. I’m learning how to communicate with the stones, learning how to work together; this piece is in fact a collaboration in that sense.

“I also feel like I’m bringing my own sense of Greek and Roman mythology and philosophy to this piece.”

With a mythical character as ubiquitous as Ulysses, Irene had to develop her own interpretation of him from the pieces that spoke most deeply to her, drawing a little from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, but predominantly from ‘Divine Comedy’, written by the Italian Dante, a piece that Italian national Irene is particularly familiar with.

“In both cases, Ulysses represents to me a thinker and traveller–a character fascinated by the unknown and dedicated to the search for something deep and authentic,” she explains.

“But in the ‘Divine Comedy’, Ulysses is a character enriched with introspection, becoming a symbol of the thirst for knowledge that refuses to recognise limits.

“So my work, Ulysses’ Shipwreck, represents those moments in life where we feel lost, which often forces us to look inward and examine ourselves. If we persevere through this journey of introspection, we can discover our true selves.”

For Irene, a first time SWELL exhibition, the thought of having tens of thousands of people view her work is an exhilarating one.

“I am very honoured to be part of this great event,” she says.

“I think as an artist, it is a big opportunity to have many people see your work. It is great to have my piece exhibited in a public space, because I strongly believe that art should be for everyone, enjoyed by many and not just an elite.

I genuinely believe in the power of art, and that art can contribute to society and enrich all our souls.

For SWELL, Irene is meshing the classical methods of her Italian heritage with the contemporary vibe of the Australian art scene, bringing a fresh voice into the mix of eclectic artists on offer at this year’s event. She discusses the differences between the two art worlds.

“The art scene is obviously very different here than in Rome and Italy in general, which is more classical with its large, historical monuments and famous museums.

But the art scene here is very fresh, which is more genuine in a way. This type of art is very important.”

As to whether this particular piece is a robust representation of her work to date, Irene is clear.

“I think it speaks about my research as a human being first and then as an artist. It is not the first time that I use Ulysses as an archetype but my concept of this figure is constantly evolving. It evolves with me and with the vision I have of our reality and existence.

“It is also representing the journey that I am taking right now in creating these art pieces,” she continues.

“The laborious effort of carving sandstone by hand can be overwhelming for both the body and mind. I believe these three elements work together in order to make a work of art: the body, mind and soul. You need to practice on those three constantly. Every day. I think this is the only way you might be able to one day create a masterpiece–through constant dedication and discipline.”

Irene is inviting audiences at SWELL to reflect on who they and their place in the world through her work.

“Considering what is happening in the world right now, I feel something similar is happening to many of us,” she says.

“In a world where we are constantly connected, these moments of forced solitude can be scary but also valuable for reflecting and asking ‘Who am I?’ ‘Where am I going?’ and ‘What is the meaning?’

“Ulysses’ Shipwreck is an invitation to find our true selves, to be able to free ourselves from any false realities and embrace authenticity.”



  • The main SWELL Sculpture Festival runs on Currumbin Beach from 10 to 19 September, with workshops, artist talks, guided sculpture walks, SWELL Kids Elements and much more on offer.
  • Community events include westerlySWELL and northerlySWELL which run from 1 to 19 September, and easterlySWELL which runs from 10 September.
  • SWELL Small Gallery runs at Dust Temple Currumbin from 5 to 19 September.
  • Visit swellsculpture.com.au for more

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