Legendary Kiwi eye doctor Fred Hollows honoured with mural at former high school

The life and work of legendary Kiwi eye doctor Professor Fred Hollows has been celebrated in a giant mural adjoining his former high school.

The hyper realistic mural of the late Fred Hollows was recently completed by local Palmerston North artist SwiftMantis (Mikal Carter).

Rendered in exceptional detail, down to the pores, creases and fine hairs on his face, Fred is overlooking Featherston Street while presenting an intraocular lens for all to see.

As an internationally acclaimed eye surgeon, Fred restored sight to thousands of people around the world and trained countless eye doctors to do the same.

He believed everyone, rich or poor, has the right to quality, affordable eye care and his work lives on today through The Fred Hollows Foundation, globally and in New Zealand.

Chief Executive Officer for The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ, Dr Audrey Aumua, says the mural plays an important role in increasing the awareness of Fred Hollows and the important work The Foundation continues to do.

"A focus for us is passing on the knowledge of Fred to following generations, so we are grateful to Boys' High, the Council and SwiftMantis for supporting us in celebrating Fred’s legacy and the work The Foundation continues to do to date.”

The mural adorns an external wall of Palmerston North Boys’ High School, Fred’s former high school, which he attended from 1943 to 1947.

Deputy Rector Gerard (Gerry) Atkin says the school is proud to have him as one of their Old Boys and to be able to celebrate his enduring legacy.

“Fred Hollows made a significant contribution to improving the life circumstances of people throughout the world. Having Fred’s image displayed prominently will help make him a focal point for both our young men and the wider Palmerston North community,” Atkins says.

SwiftMantis, well-known in the Manawatu region for his street art, says it was an honour to paint Fred’s portrait.

“For me it’s just about mutual respect for an exceptional individual,” he says.

SwiftMantis has been painting murals since 2016, progressing into the medium after studying design and illustration and pursuing a career as a tattoo artist.

It was through tattooing that he says he learnt realism the hard way “as tattooing is pretty unforgiving”.

His early murals were of native flora and fauna, later expanding into more realistic animal portraiture and storytelling.

While most of his murals focused predominately on animals, human portraiture had become more and more prevalent in his tattoo work, encouraging him to try it on a larger scale with paint.

His first opportunity was a small wall-sized portrait of Frida Kahlo for a Mexican restaurant, then a gigantic theatre-sized portrait of Frodo from The Lord of the Rings for Pahiatua’s Regent Theatre.

“It was at such a big scale that after that I was like, I can probably do this at any scale from this point,” he says.

The mural of Fred Hollows was commissioned by the Palmerston North City Council, as part of Featherston Street cycleway and pedestrian upgrades.

Active Transport Manager Michael Bridge says the community was asked about ways to improve the vibrancy of the surrounding area, and one of the key ideas that emerged was to celebrate local heritage and past stories.

“With none being more significant than that of Fred Hollows,” he says. “We are proud to support Palmerston North Boys' High School in bringing Fred's legacy to life through an incredible mural by SwiftMantis."

As a texture-based artist whose work involves “gritty realism, high contrast and very high texture”, SwiftMantis says he was excited about the challenge that Fred’s portrait provided.

“Seeing Fred’s photo, I thought this is going to be amazing. I’d always wanted to do a really detailed face with skin pores and skin texture,” he says.

The mural took five days to complete, with SwiftMantis experimenting with new spray-painting techniques, using bespoke 3D printed nozzles, to achieve the desired results.

“I enjoyed pushing the skin texture and the connection with his eyes as much as I could, so when you step back it looks like he’s looking right at you,” he says.

“That’s the magic moment really, when you get that connection, and it feels like the painting is alive and has a soul.”

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