Southbank teacher Louise Howlett brings historical painting to life

Southbank teacher Louise Howlett brings historical painting to life
Brendan Rees

A Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School (VCASS) teacher is one step closer to bringing her ambitious 3D theatrics project to life after undertaking a coveted artist-in-residency programme in France.

Louise Howlett, a French teacher and theatre-maker, has been working on a project called the Secret of the Raft since 2016, which combines cutting-edge technology, immersive storytelling, and visual effects to create a unique theatrical experience.

Her project, which she said had been her pride of joy, is inspired by the story behind The Raft of the Medusa painting created by French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault in 1818-19, which depicts the aftermath of a shipwreck, the Medusa, when it was navigating the African coast in 1816.

With limited lifeboats, about 147 people were set adrift on a makeshift raft, resulting in a harrowing 13-day ordeal with only 15 people surviving.

“One of my aims was to really try to breathe life into a painting, which, to some, may seem like an antiquated masterpiece, but it actually tells an incredible story,” Ms Howlett said.

The Raft of the Medusa is still a highly relevant painting that emphasises the importance of caring for one another and valuing our shared humanity, especially in the uncertain times we face today.”

The project, which has been possible thanks to a collaboration with RMIT University’s School of Design, is entering its final stages with the work expected to be staged next year, which Ms Howlett also hoped to share in an international tour.

Such has been her innovative approach to the project, which uses 3D projection mapping, installation, and live performance, that Ms Howlett was bestowed an “Odyssee artist-in-residency programme” by the French Ministry of Culture, which supports artists, researchers and professionals who wish to develop projects within the network of cultural meeting centres in France.

The honour saw her stay in Rochefort for four weeks in May, a city in the southwest of France located at a port on the banks of the River Charente, which allowed her time to focus on researching her project and connect with local artists.


“It was a fantastic experience. I was able to research all the history behind the shipwreck including the opportunity to look at authentic documents and the survivors’ uniforms, which they normally don’t bring out for visitors,” she said.


“I also spoke to a number of historians, visited museums, and met with the local theatre company, in which we performed one of the scenes from the play, without all the multimedia, next to the river where the ship sailed.”

Expressing her excitement of being selected for the coveted residency programme, she said it was a “great honour, as it positions me among just four Australians who have ever received this distinction”.

Ms Howlett has also been nominated for the 2023 French-Australian Execellence Awards in the Woman of the Year category. The awards recognise those who have distinguished themselves in the fields of solidarity, entrepreneurship, research and innovation, sport and culture and sustainable development. •


Caption: Louise Howlett joins actors and attresses from a local theatre company in Rochefort, France to rehearse a scene of her project called Secret of the Raft.

Caption: Louise Howlett is excited to bring her 3D project called the Secret of the Raft to life. Photo: Marcela Lechocka.

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