A wombat changed Jimmi Buscombe’s life. 

When the ex-chef took chalk to the side of a bridge six years ago, he never could have imagined where his marsupial mural would lead him.

Years later, he has found himself creating an artwork at Docklands Stadium, celebrating the Matildas ahead of their Olympic qualifying match, and fielding a steady flow of art commissions.

“I’ve just been following the little paths that have opened up in front of me,” he said.

And it all began with a wombat called Gutsy.

An unlikely trio

Buscombe’s chalk mural of Gutsy the wombat on the Otway Road train bridge was meant to be temporary, washing away with the next rainfall in Warrnambool.

But when ex-graffiti-removalist Phil Hoy came across Buscombe’s wombat, he loved it so much he decided it should be permanent, and sprayed the artwork with automotive clear coat, protecting it from the elements.

chance encounter with an ABC journalist helped Gutsy — as well as Buscombe and Hoy — go viral.

Suddenly, the story of the unlikely trio was being told by media outlets around the world, and Gutsy became a landmark on Google Maps, attracting a regular stream of tourists that continues to this day.

At the time, Buscombe was trying to get a burgeoning career off the ground as a portrait artist specialising in pets, but his new-found fame meant he was suddenly in demand.

‘I followed the joy where it led me’

“That’s when Werribee Zoo contacted me and asked me if I’d be interested in doing a 3D piece,” Buscombe said.

Soon the commissions, both public and private, were rolling in.

Buscombe was commissioned to paint a 3D mural at Werribee Zoo.(Supplied: Jimmi Buscombe)

But it wasn’t enough to satisfy Buscombe’s creativity, so when Warrnambool’s annual answer to the Archibald Portrait Prize — the Warrnibald — came around, he decided to try his hand at a human portrait. 

His 2019 submission was a portrait of self-described “gender-bending” performance artist Daniel Newell’s character Dandrogyny.

It went beyond the Warrnibald and was selected as a finalist in the both the Kennedy Arts Prize and Doug Moran National Portrait Prize.

Jimmi says Dandrogyny captures the energy the character holds within the LGBTQIA+ community.(Supplied: Jimmi Buscombe)

“That still is just a trip to me, that is so surreal — going from pet portraits to ending up in the national portrait prize, it’s just crazy,” he said.

Buscombe has since painted quite a few south-west Victorian locals and believes the experience can deepen the bond between artist and subject.

“Even with Daniel, who I knew quite well beforehand, it created this desire to continue to collaborate,” he said. 

‘Different skills for different works’

As his profile has grown, Buscombe’s CV has become increasingly eclectic, with new commissions giving him a chance to try different mediums and ideas.

These include glow-in-the-dark murals, which allow people to “paint” on a wall using the torch on their phones, and anamorphic art, which is distorted at first glance, but appears in 3D when viewed at a particular angle.

Glow-in-the-dark paint means visitors can paint temporary additions on this mural with a torch.(Supplied: Jimmi Buscombe)

Jimmi says 3D anamorphic art is very mathematical and constructing them is complex.(Supplied: Jimmi Buscombe)

Buscombe’s mural of Gutsy the wombat has also led him to some of the largest canvases possible, with his artwork featuring on water towers and silos in Avoca and Lismore in Victoria, and Murrumbateman, just north of Canberra. 

Buscombe said he was especially proud of the latter, which required lots of planning.

“I really tried to push myself beyond what I’ve been able to achieve before, just in detail and scope of the work,” he said.

Jimmi measures a chalk grid onto the silo, illustrated here with digital markings.(Supplied: Jimmi Buscombe)

It took Jimmi about 161 hours over 17 days to paint the Murrambateman water tank.(Supplied: Jimmi Buscombe)

“So it’s a major piece that’s probably my most proud.”

But his most prominent piece came about in February this year, when Buscombe created a mural of three Matildas players that was displayed at Docklands Stadium for their Olympic qualifying match.

“That’s such an honour to be part of that narrative … with 80,000 fans wandering around,” he said.

Creating human connection

Whether it be glow-in-the-dark murals in laneways or huge paintings on stadiums, Buscombe said the thing at the heart of his art was connection.

Buscombe’s artwork features Matildas players Ellie Carpenter, Charli Grant and Steph Catley.(Supplied: Jimmi Buscombe)

He said it was during a stint as the artist-in-residence at a Warrnambool residential aged care facility that he really started to understand the gift of creativity as a way to connect people. 

“It went on for years this project, so residents would request art,” Buscombe said. 

“I had some residents say, ‘My dog passed away a couple of years ago, I’d love a portrait of him outside my room’.

“Or another lady whose husband had died and he was a carnation farmer, so she wanted carnations outside her room.

“There was this real direct connection to other humans through art.

“That’s where I got to see the importance of art and the way it lifted the residents day-to-day.”

‘Gutsy changed everyone’s life’

As Gutsy’s sixth birthday rolls around, Buscombe is gearing up for his first solo art exhibition at The F Project Arts Precinct in Warrnambool.

He said it was especially exciting because most of his work was about collaborating with a client, but this was the first time he had been left to his own devices “to see what happens between me, a brush, some paint, a canvas, and some time”. 

Phil Hoy, ABC reporter Emily Bissland and Jimmi Buscombe with Gutsy the wombat.(Supplied: Jimmi Buscombe)

Looking back, Buscombe said it was pretty wild that a chalk drawing of a wombat had led him to his present reality.

“It’s pretty surreal at times to think that I get to paint pictures for a living — it’s amazing,” he said.

“Gutsy changed everyone’s life who was a part of it.

“The opportunities that have come from it for me are profound.”