Emily Bullock is not your typical activist. She makes bras out of pet budgies and is at the forefront of the battle to halt overdevelopment in Glebe.
Furious residents and protesters have gathered outside an old terrace house in the inner-city suburb of Glebe; they are blowing whistles, waving banners and banging pots and pans. A security guard blocks the entrance to the property, which is being auctioned off by the NSW government for a million-dollar profit.
Diminutive but full of energy, Emily Valentine Bullock, 68, quietly observes from across the road. The award-winning artist and political activist has helped organise this rally with local advocacy group Hands Off Glebe. She has lived in the nearby Franklyn St public housing complex for 30 years.
“It’s one thing I’ve learnt from many years of being in committees is that you can’t be precious,” she tells me. We’ve just been informed that the auction has been cancelled at the last minute. Days later, the Hands-off Glebe Facebook page announces that 92 Cowper St was quietly sold to a private buyer for around $2 million.
Emily has seen a lot of changes in her community over the years. She says when she first moved to Glebe, an empty Grace Brothers complex sat on the corner of Bay St where the Broadway shopping centre is now. With increasing interest from property developers, she says the threat of overdevelopment has long been looming on her doorstep.
“All the universities can’t stop building buildings. I’m surrounded by all of these urban nests; they’re all empty. It’s just been development after development,” she says.
Last November, Emily received a letter from the Department of Housing, which detailed plans to bulldoze her home to make way for a block of new apartment buildings. The letter addressed her simply as ‘resident’. She is now fighting against the Berejiklian government to protect her fellow tenants from being forced out of their flats and rehoused into high-rises.
Emily says moving vulnerable residents into high rise could have a devastating effect on the local, tight-knit community.
“There’s no windows , it’s all oppressive. People just tend to go in and shut the door, so you don’t have any communication with your neighbours unless you happen to be in the lift,” she says.
Emily adds in the months since she received the notice, the local government has not contacted her or her fellow tenants regarding their housing situation.
Hours before the rally, Emily walked me through the quiet, leafy public housing estate she has lived in since the early ’90s. “See that one over there?” she motions towards a large native tree perched in the corner. “That’s one of mine”, she smiles. As we walk, she speaks of her neighbours, pointing at each flat and elaborating on who lives there and how many children they have.
Emily is a ‘go-to’ for the people living in the Franklyn and Bay St complex, says Hands off Glebe co-founder, Dr Hannah Middleton.
“When they’re worried and not sure what to do about something; they’ll go to her,” she says.
“Em is very down to earth. It’s always fun to talk about her work. She’s very original.”
As the secretary for Hands Off Glebe, Emily spends her time organising bi-weekly meetings, handing out flyers and speaking at local rallies. Each Thursday, she volunteers for wildlife rescue organisation WIRES, where she picks flowers to feed birds and learns about different native species.
The next day, I visit Emily in her two-storey apartment. Her walls are painted bright pink and covered in childhood photographs, woven baskets, quirky trinkets and her signature feathered dog and lizard sculptures.
Born in New Zealand, Emily moved to Australia to study jewellery at the Sydney College of the Arts. She then went on to work in the fashion industry as a costume jeweller. One day while driving in Newtown, she came across a dead lorikeet on the road. In 1999, Emily debuted ‘RoadKill’, which featured a pair of rubber thongs covered in the bird’s colourful feathers.
“A lot of people actually only see birds just as a piece,” she says.
“Whereas when you break down the feathers, you see how intricate they really are and how detailed everything is.
“People think all magpies are the same – but they’re not.”
Over the past two decades, Emily has refined her love of feathers, crafting sculptures and jewellery pieces using birdkill, catkill and petkill. Her ‘cocka-roos’, ‘tawny cats’ and ‘poma-roosters’ have been featured in multiple galleries across Australia. Her taxidermy and costume art has also attracted international recognition. In 2002, she created a ‘Budgerigar Brassiere’ out of her dead pet budgies, which won the ‘Bizarre Bra’ section at the World of Wearable Art Awards.
“I have to start from the bottom and work my way up to the top. It’s the jeweller’s eye,” she elaborates on the process.
Emily says that her early training in college taught her ‘to be bold, not cautious’. By using animals that have been killed on the road, she says that her work responds to how people chose to treat wildlife, dead or alive.
“There is just no respect for animal life,” she says.
“The road just blasts through, and through habitat, through everything – and there is no consideration.”
As the sun begins to set, and the magpies begin to swirl around the balcony, Emily freshens up the bowl she leaves out every day for the birds. She tells me about her latest creation, ‘Bird Planes’, which takes cats and dogs and sets them in the feathers of magpies, mynahs and lorikeets.
“We’re invading the skies. In New Zealand, I know they had a seagull nesting site at the end of the airport, and they went around and injected all the bird’s eggs to kill them so that they wouldn’t come back the following year to breed. So, the planes could fly safely,” she says.
“I think high-rises are the same. They interfere with the flight path. Similar to the roads and everything.
“We just expect them to move on. This is like the way I’m being treated at the moment. Just move on.”