SITTING inconspicuously in the Zebu Bar at the Rydges Port Macquarie, you can't help but notice their behaviour. Not more than 50 metres away along the Hastings River shoreline path sits a one-metre-high koala, Celtic Koala by name. He is the source of constant attention, kids grabbing his ears to crawl on to his head so mum and dad can take a photo; elderly couples staring intensely at his multiple-colour coating.
There's another koala at the Zebu's door that fronts the river. He's got horns and a tidy vest - he's called Ziggy.
They are but two of 50 welcoming koala sculptures that landed at public parks and buildings and outside private businesses throughout greater Port Macquarie at the beginning of September. The Hello Koalas project was developed by Arts and Health Australia under the guidance of Margret Meagher, the organisation's executive director, and project manager Linda Hall. Three years in the planning, it has come to the visiting public's attention in a big way with the installation of the fibreglass sculptures and the publicising of the Hello Koalas Public Sculpture Trail that will run through the end of 2015.
"It was a chance for Port Macquarie to own its public space," Meagher says. "Public art engages people, it is not elitist."
The innovative project has quickly captured the imagination of visitors and locals alike.
The idea came to Meagher when she was attending a leadership conference in the UK. There was a presentation on Larkin with Toads, a public sculpture project in Hull in the UK that pays tribute to renowned favourite local son and poet/novelist Philip Larkin, author of the poem Toads.
Koalas are the ideal fit for Port Macquarie, the home of the only koala hospital in the world and Billabong Zoo, which has an accredited koala breeding program.
Every koala has been sponsored ($12,500 each, for a three-year sponsorship) and artists were independently selected and paid honorariums for their designs. In some cases sponsors engaged in dialogue with the artists, in some cases they chose to go with the design as presented.
Among the designs are Mack the Surf Life Saver; Retro Rita (in a bikini); Froggy, painted in Paris by Sophie Corcoran in conjunction with sponsor Cassegrain Wines; Dame Koala (sponsored by The Corner Restaurant) and Scoop (with Superman T-shirt showing under his suit) sponsored by the Port Macquarie News.
The community of Comboyne held fund-raising cake stalls and events to pay for its own "Cowoala", yes, painted to resemble a dairy cow.
They can be seen at the Glasshouse gallery and museum, Wauchope Hospital, Port Macquarie Library, Port Macquarie Airport, Bonny Hills Surf Club. Just about everywhere - you can't miss them. And in fact you start to look for them.
The unpainted koalas were delivered to each artist, along with paint, and picked up upon completion.
"The artistic quality is the highest I've ever seen," Meagher says. "The artists felt grief when we picked them up. Most spent months on them. Some are still out there cleaning them. That's one thing I didn't expect - the drive to see all 50," Meagher says. "In a couple of weeks we will launch the 50-plus club for people who have seen all 50."
The sculpture was designed to resemble the type of koala found in the Port Macquarie area. And as you might expect, the result is mesmerising.
"Koalas are very child-like in physical appearance," Meagher says. "People are drawn to them. It had to be receptive. When we showed the first designs, the reaction was 'it looks like a child'."
The project is still rolling out. Merchandise based around the designs will be available before Christmas. And a 3-metre high koala (with 1-metre joey) is due for installation early in 2015, at a location yet to be named.
Meagher has an extensive background in the arts field, but the primary purpose of the organisation she heads, Arts and Health Australia, is advocacy for health through creative activities.