Black Santa

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Black Santa was an Erskineville man, Syd ‘Doc’ Cunningham, who used to distribute presents to rural children every Christmas. Syd would sit outside the Woolworths supermarket in King Street, Newtown, collecting money and toys throughout the year. Around Christmastime he would give a Christmas card to people who dropped money in his bucket.

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After Syd died in 1999 a bronze plaque was installed at the spot where he used to set up his folding table. On it was a depiction in relief of his plastic bucket.

Syd (Doc) Cunningham plaque, King Street, Newtown (Sydney), 1999.

Syd (Doc) Cunningham plaque, King Street, Newtown (Sydney), 1999.

In 2000 the footpath was repaved, with synthetic bluestone pavers replacing the asphalt.

King Street repaving, 2000.

King Street repaving, 2000.

Before the works commenced the plaque was removed. But in the place where it had been glued to the footpath, somebody wrote an impromptu memorial to Black Santa in red chalk.

'The Black Santa Claus' hand-drawn plaque, 2000.

‘The Black Santa Claus’ hand-drawn plaque, 2000.

After the repaving was finished, the original plaque was reinstalled, and it’s still there today. The supermarket itself has changed hands a few times. Currently it’s an IGA. And Syd’s plaque has become the focal point for beggars who keep his memory alive by collecting for themselves.

Syd Cunningham plaque, long since reinstalled, 2008.

Syd Cunningham plaque, long since reinstalled, 2008.

Funny thing though. Just a few days ago, someone wrote a post about the plaque on the Republic of Newtown Facebook page, adding, ‘ Sadly, the plaque was removed when the footpath was resurfaced’. Somehow this person had failed to notice that the plaque was put back fourteen years ago. That Facebook page got many comments and even though several noted that the plaque was still there, quite a few comments demanded that the plaque be replaced. Sentimental indignation prompted by misinformation. It happens.

 

The plaque in the same spot, next to the IGA supermarket, December 2014.

The plaque in the same place, next to the IGA supermarket, December 2014. All photos of this spot in King Street are from the Pavement Graffiti archives by meganix.

 

The swagman artist

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Ernest Reynolds was a street showman, a colourful character who made a living as a pavement artist for over 30 years. His home town was Adelaide in South Australia and he claimed to have travelled the world as a seaman and artist. On the tramp around country towns in Australia, he drew such crowds that he often rated a mention in local newspapers as ‘the swagman artist’. His career as a ‘pioneer in chalks’ began in Sydney around 1900 and by the 1930s he was setting up his pitch in places like Adelaide, Mount Gambier (SA), Broken Hill (NSW) and Kalgoorlie (WA).

Described by reporters as a ‘picturesque personality’, Mr Reynolds called himself ‘a travelling artist and scientist’ and made pronouncements about scientific matters including, for instance, the geological origins of the Blue Lake in Mount Gambier. In Sydney, he said, he had been decreed the world’s champion pavement artist in 1930, and he liked to be referred to as the King of Pavement Artists.

He also told reporters that he was a descendent of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famous 18th century English painter. But his most famous pavement art work was a rendition of William Holman Hunt’s 1910 religious painting, ‘The Light of the World’, which he could do in 6 hours 18 minutes. Once, after this picture had been on the pavement for several days in Broken Hill, the Barrier Miner newspaper reported that ‘ one devout woman … to prevent its desecration by the feet of the multitude, visited the spot with scrubbing brush and soap and washed the pavement clean’.

 

The Light of the World (1853–54) is an allegorical painting by William Holman Hunt representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door.

The Light of the World (1853–54) is an allegorical painting by William Holman Hunt representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door.

 

Reynolds made amusing comparisons about the generosity of various towns. In Sydney, he said, the people hurry past and ‘let you starve on!’ And in Mount Gambier he told a reporter that the public did not seem to be aware of the fact that he was doing this work for a living. The journalist duly wrote that ‘he would like them to realise that a silver coin would be acceptable’.

The drawing at the top of this blog post is copied from another blog Cipher Mysteries. Blogger Nick Pelling found Ernest Reynolds while hunting down another person named Reynolds (it’s complicated) but does not mention where he found the picture.

But I first encountered Ernest Reynolds in yet another blog, All my own work! – a history of pavement art by Philip Battle. I have since found out more by searching for newspaper articles about Reynolds in the National Library of Australia’s marvellous resource, Trove.

Philip Battle’s stories about screeving – mostly in Britain – are based on meticulous research and his posts feature wonderful archival illustrations. Philip is now turning his blog into a book, and he is hoping to raise a modest sum to publish it through crowd funding. Perhaps you would like to help him.

Drift

'beneath the pavement, the beach' by Kate Riley

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’ by Kate Riley

It’s not many people who receive a commissioned artwork as a graduation present, especially one that is based on the topic of their thesis. How privileged am I!

beneath the pavement, the beach is the title of the work made for me by artist Kate Riley.

'beneath the pavement, the beach' by Kate Riley

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’ by Kate Riley

I had already admired Kate’s luminously detailed series of prints on paper that she called flotilla. Here are blue bottles (Portuguese men o’ war) stranded on the beach by a receding tide, their long tentacles drawing inky loops across the wet sand. So when Kate was approached by family members to create a work especially for me, she found inspiration at the intersection of our interests – the eyes-down scavenging for traces of life (and death) as we stroll along deserted beaches or busy streets.

Kate, it transpires, had enjoyed reading the post on my blogsite called Flotsam and jetsam. In that post I quoted author Tim Winton on the pleasures of beachcombing, because I found in his description strong resemblances to my own practice of combing the pavement for graffiti.

This is what Kate wrote to me:

‘I decided I would like to explore the “beneath the pavement lies the beach” idea … This segued beautifully into a consideration of how to use the structure of the work I had chosen, the small wooden boxes. By using both sides of the boxes I could use beach/ bluebottle/ seadrift imagery on one face of the box and pavement imagery on the other. The boxes can then be arranged and rearranged as desired. Using the ‘back’ of the box, as well as the front, also allows a push and pull of the surface that I find rather pleasing, and is suggestive of pigeon holes and display cabinets.

‘This piece is now a record of two of my favourite places and two of my favourite walks: the beach on the south coast of NSW on which I grew up, and the streets around Newtown where I live now. To build up a store of Newtown pavement images, I used the same process I used for my beach walk drawings:

‘I set aside a set period of time for a walk where I use my i-phone to take quick images of anything that catches my eye. In the studio I can then select and regroup the images to create a satisfying arrangement that captures the spirit of my walk. I know from your blog that you use the same, or a similar, process.

‘The ‘beach’ side of the work captures a moment in time. By the next tide the objects on the beach will be completely different. Any seadrift or bluebottles left will have dried, lost their colour and vibrancy. New marks and patterns will have emerged.

 

'beneath the pavement, the beach', Kate Riley (detail)

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’, Kate Riley (detail)

‘In contrast, the ‘pavement’ side is a glimpse of the layering of signs and markings that build up over time. Marks both intentional and meaningful (survey marks, messages official and unofficial …) and marks serendipitous and accidental (rust, cracks, wear and tear …) lie next to and over each other. Objects found there may be fleeting, but others can be (almost) permanent fixtures.

'beneath the pavement, the beach', Kate Riley (detail)

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’, Kate Riley (detail). All photographs by Kate Riley

‘Both sides were collected as virtual beachcombing to make a gift for you.’

Thank you Kate, and thank you to the family members who commissioned this most beautiful surprise. Thanks also to other family and friends for your gifts, both lovely and silly, your good wishes, and your company on what was the best graduation day I have ever had.

 

(beneath the pavement, the beach: charcoal pencil, pastel pencil, powdered graphite, ink, gesso and acrylic paint on seven wood panels, two of which are 15 x 15 cm, three 10 x 10 cm, and two 10 x 5 cm)

Your typical pedestrian

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My WordPress avatar is a pedestrian traversing the asphalt. Despite a continuous battering by passing traffic, you can see that my pedestrian still has a burning heart, thanks to an implant by the 90s band Junglepunks.

Pedestrian and Junglepunks stencils, Broadway (Sydney), 1999

Pedestrian and Junglepunks, Broadway (Sydney), 1999

I have met many such pavement people since I began my graffiti project way back in 1999, but I seem to have only mentioned them once on this blog site. A desire to revisit them has been prompted by some of the photographs in a new little book by Phil Smith, Enchanted things, where he writes:

‘The pedestrian figures here were all intended by some designer as generic representations; yet to the glad eye they display their eccentricities, amputations, stretch marks, wrinkles, prostheses and rearrangements. They serves as memento mutabis (“remember you will change”), a reminder of your body as unfinished business, inscribed into its path and subject to all that passes along it, a history made on the hoof.’

In this photo-essay Phil, an ambulant academic at Plymouth University, UK, urges us to undertake an ‘experimental pilgrimage without destinations’ where disfigured pedestrian figures are just a small sample of the absurd, ironic and accidental artworks in the urban landscape that, if we take the trouble to notice them, will rearrange our attitude to the world.

My Sydney pavement pedestrians serve to confirm that walking in the builtscape is no simple matter.  They don’t need Phil to tell them they should LOOK, LOOK RIGHT, LOOK LEFT. But even if they have an opinion about what they see, they are made to shut up. It is sometimes permissible for them to manifest their gender or age status, but more often than not they are stripped to their naked genderlessness, a mere shadow of their supposed selves.

Although exposed to assault from all sides, they can hardly complain they weren’t warned. Even so, when cautioned to THINK BEFORE YOU CROSS and STEP SAFELY they generally decide to make a dash for it. Some do so with a defiant display of insouciance but others are so terrified by the traffic they jump right out of their shoes.

Pedestrian whose comments have been censored, Summer Hill, 2010

Pedestrian whose comments have been censored, Summer Hill, 2010

Wise walkers, Stanmore, 2000

Wise walkers, Stanmore, 2000

Unwise street crosser, Newtown, 1999

Unwise street crosser, Newtown, 1999

Left and right shoes left behind, Newtown, 2000

Left and right shoes left behind, Newtown, 2000

The more purposeful striders who stick to the footpath find they are obliged to share their way with cyclists and sometimes even elephants. Hidden trenches and falling manhole covers are additional hazards.

Casualties are high and many pavements are haunted by the remains of hapless pedestrians, last seen in healthy condition maybe twenty years ago, now reduced to making ghostly appearances from between the cracks in the asphalt.

Pathway parade, College and Liverpool Streets, Sydney, 2011

Pathway parade, College and Liverpool Streets, Sydney, 2011

 

Pedestrian in trench, Newtown, 1999

Pedestrian in trench, Newtown, 1999

Pedestrian under manhole cover, Chatswood, 2007

Pedestrian under manhole cover, Chatswood, 2007

Traces of a pedestrian, Berry, NSW, 2007

Traces of a pedestrian, Berry, NSW, 2007

 

Like my flat mates, I find it hard to keep up with Phil’s ambulant ruminations. Nevertheless, the next item on my reading list is another recent book by him, larger in size and no doubt equally challenging.  It’s called On walking … and stalking Sebald and its cover features an array of pedestrian figures. How could I resist?

 

Smith, Phil, 2014, Enchanted things: signposts to a new nomadism, Axminster: Triarchy Press.

Smith, Phil, 2014, On walking … and stalking Sebald: a guide to going beyond wandering around looking at stuff, Axminster: Triarchy Press.

Weekend at Walcha

Walcha is a small, neat, and sometimes icily cold town on the New England Tableland of New South Wales. A visit there on a cool (but not so cold) weekend in early November gave me the chance to do some sightseeing and inspect the town for notable pavement features. As it turned out my most interesting finds were in Fitzroy Street, the main shopping drag.

The wide footpaths outside the shops are paved with patterned concrete slabs. Very decorative but functional as well as they are deliberately designed to be non-slip.

All around the town there are public artworks and sculptures made from apparently local materials. These include several horizontal installations set into the patterned footpaths. Although they are artistically interesting, I gather that these ‘depictions’ are not appreciated by some older residents because they are not non-slip like the concrete slabs they replace.

Early on Sunday morning a contingent of Council outdoor staff was busy maintaining the roadway. One man was tracing the cracks in the asphalt by scraping out accumulated dirt with a pick.

Another worker came after him, cleaning out the dust with a leaf-blower.

Finally, the redefined cracks were filled with bitumen emulsion, leaving a kind of scribbly black writing on the grey surface of Fitzroy Street.

Being the tidy town that it is, Walcha does not have much in the way of graffiti. In fact there only seems to be one spray-can practitioner, whose few efforts are to be seen on several walls and one footpath.

A quest always enhances the experience of travelling.

 

Hearts

I spotted this heart – or rather, cardioid shape – on a road in Glebe (Sydney) a week ago. As I drove towards it I thought it must be a very clever piece of hot rubber graffiti, but when I took a closer look I wasn’t too sure. It might be paint or some tarry substance.

Anyway because it’s Spring, the season for romance, I thought I’d go back through the archives and share a few more photographs of love-hearts tattooed on the pavement.

‘I (heart) U BEC’, near Temora in southern New South Wales (Australia).

‘SKR + BKR’, Stanmore (Sydney), 2008.

‘I (heart) you lots anb losts’, Enmore (Sydney), 2010.

A heart on the corner of one man’s Epicenter of Love in Fitzroy (Melbourne), 2011.

Tour de Snowy Mountains

The road from Tumbarumba to the Snowy Mountains Highway is called Elliot Way. It climbs and dips, climbs and dips, winding through pastoral land then tall forests, and over the Tumut River several times, before another steep climb to the winter-time snow fields above the tree line. It is a route that is apparently enjoyed by very fit cyclists. In summertime January it is hot and not very busy but, since I am not the hardy type at all, I chose to enjoy the scenery from my car. In the sun’s glare I almost missed these words of encouragement written, Tour de France-style, on the bitumen. All I can say is Vivent les amis d’Owen et Kathy for making the effort to cheer them on.

Tumbarumba tar

The first time we passed through Tumbarumba I loved the place. It had already started snowing higher up the mountains and in Tumbarumba the cold rain tinged the main street with a romantic grey patina. Icy water flowed down the gutters and the café where we ordered soup had books to read and a log fire burning.

This time we visit on New Year’s Eve and I am reminded that the midsummer sun is a great leveller, the glare off the asphalt erasing any architectural features of distinction. The main street of Tumbarumba might belong to any country town, with its mix of verandah post and IGA Supermarket aesthetics, the Lotto posters on the newsagency window, the racks of synthetic Made-in-China clothes standing outside once-glorious retail emporia, the same flies, the same listless teenagers flicking chips at each other as they suck Cokes at plastic tables outside the take-away. The cosy café we remember is closed for the Christmas-New Year period.

What perhaps distinguishes Tumbarumba are the dead, undecorated Christmas trees strapped to every verandah post and traffic sign – an odd civic nod to the festive season. In the heat they give off the nostalgic piney smell of Christmases past.

Sunset in Tumbarumba

And the pavements? The only embellishments I find are yellow stencilled shoe prints – perhaps the remnants of some heritage trail (you can just make out a pair of them in the photograph) – and one-inch square bathroom tiles, some red, some blue, randomly and very sparsely pressed into the concrete footpath.

As we squint at this streetscape a water truck trundles by sprinkling water, not to settle the dust (recent floods here have eliminated dust), but to cool the melting asphalt. Too late for us. We are standing in the shade of the pub awning, gouging tar and stones from the soles of our Crocs, collected mid-afternoon when we stepped out of the car in a side street.

Happy New Year to all.

Graffiti rocks

Graffiti is usually spoken of as if it is an urban phenomenon, but of course people in non-urban areas do graffiti too. Often it is of the ‘I wuz here’ variety, some of which can be extremely elaborate. The graffiti on the Vee Wall at Nambucca Heads, painted by holidaying families, belongs to this category. But even this kind of folk-art graffiti is hated by people who dislike all graffiti on principle. They think it spoils the natural environment.

There are other people who use graffiti in campaigns to preserve the natural environment. For example, large messages painted on the road to Seal Rocks were made by locals protesting about a resort-style development proposed for the area.

I have written about how people see things in different ways in an article called Perceptions – Graffiti Rocks  in Macquarie University’s Scan Magazine.

Hicks, M., 2010. Perceptions: Graffiti Rocks. Scan (Journal of media arts culture).

 

Writing on water – thoughts from Silverton (Guest spot)

This week’s post was written by guest spotter Julian Holland, who is a science curator and historian. Julian has been travelling recently in far western New South Wales.

Water – and there is a steady insistent drizzle as I write – water remains the central conundrum of the European experiment in settling Australia.  Water is invisible in most of the Australian landscape most of the time.  But sometimes – at rare intervals – it appears in abundance, even excess.  Much of the drive for Australia’s exploration in the nineteenth century was the search for water – for an inland sea around which agriculture could develop and for navigable rivers which could transport people and produce to markets.

But the explorers’ quest gave way to the reality of Goyder’s Line, the boundary in South Australia beyond which rainfall could not be relied on for agriculture.  The disjunction is marked on the landscape by a sudden shift in the character of vegetation.

Yet the myth of water remains powerful.  In the old school house museum in Silverton, beyond Broken Hill, plastic stencils of different states reminded me of this.  Apart from their boundaries – coast lines and surveyors’ lines – the only features they could guide a child’s pencil along were the courses of rivers and boundaries of lakes, patterning impressionable brains with the idea of water in the landscape. 

But South Australia’s lakes are salt pans.  And perhaps the stencil-joints along the rivers should be read more literally.  Australia’s rivers are often no more than strings of waterholes.

The river that runs through Silverton, Umberumberka Creek, most of the time doesn’t run anywhere.  It is a river of sand.  It is characteristic of Australia’s dry land rivers, visible in the landscape as a ribbon of larger trees, their roots embracing the invisible river below the sand. 

Instead of the ephemeral ripples of wind or insect or falling leaf – or the splash of oars – these rivers of sand carry slightly more enduring inscriptions.

Heading back to Broken Hill, on the outskirts of Silverton, the road bows down in courtesy to a passing creek – a feeder to the Umberumberka – dry too much of the time to warrant a bridge, the possibility of water, or the probability of its absence, marked by lines and depth measures of 0.50 and 1.00 metres.  We inscribe the landscape and the landscape is inscribed in us.  The two landscapes do not always match.