The swagman artist

pavement-artist

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 1851 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.

Disintegration

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In an art gallery bookshop recently I came across a little book on a subject that interests me. It has taken me a long time to discover it, since it was first published in 1994. Wabi-sabi for artists, designers, poets and philosophers is by design philosopher, Leonard Koren.

It may have been Koren’s book that put the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi on Western curricula. These days most designers will have had some passing acquaintanceship with wabi sabi during their student years, although few have any real grasp of the concept. This is not surprising. Apparently author Marcel Theroux presented a program called ‘In Search of Wabi Sabi’ on BBC Four in 2006. In it he asked people on a Tokyo street to describe wabi sabi, but he was usually given a polite shrug and the explanation that wabi sabi is simply unexplainable. So, while I cannot possibly encapsulate Koren’s elegant little book in a blog post, I can give you an idea of some of the things he says about wabi sabi.

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Peripherally associated with Zen Buddhism, and based on the idea that truth comes from the observation of nature, wabi sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete; a beauty of things modest and humble; a beauty of things unconventional.

Wabi sabi is an aesthetic appreciation of the evanescence of life, and its images force us to contemplate our own mortality. They evoke an existential loneliness and tender sadness mingled with bittersweet comfort, since we know all existence shares the same fate.

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If things are described as having the quality of wabi sabi, it means that their appearance suggests natural processes. They are made of materials that are visibly vulnerable to the effects of weathering and human treatment, and they record these processes in a language of discolouration, rust, tarnish, stain, warping, shrinking, shrivelling and cracking. Their nicks, chips, bruises, scars, dents and peeling are testament to histories of use and abuse. Koren even says that “wabi-sabi comes in an infinite spectrum of grays”.

Now you can see why I might be interested in wabi sabi. Don’t these descriptions of the material qualities of wabi sabi fit so well the appearance of worn pavements! I am reminded of the chapter on ‘How to look at pavement’ in James Elkins’s book How to use your eyes. “Cracking, distortion, disintegration, ravelling, shoving, rutting – I love the terminology of distressed pavement,” says Elkins, “The utterly ordinary mangled surface of the road … is full of metaphors for human disaster”.

My interest in wabi sabi extends to the aesthetic appeal (or otherwise) of run-down parts of the city – old alleyways, derelict industrial sites, shabby shopping strips, crumbling houses. But I’ll save that discussion for another time.

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Elkins, James, How to use your eyes, New York, Routledge, 2009.

Green, Penelope, At home with Leonard Koren: an idiosyncratic designer, a serene new home, The New York Times, 22 September 2010.

Koren, Leonard, Wabi-sabi for artists, designers, poets & philosophers, Point Reynes, California, Imperfect Publishing, 2008.

Wabi-sabi, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi_sabi

No parking

Enmore, 2014.

Enmore, 2014.

This is a story about the struggle between the green and the grey, between leaves and asphalt, between street trees and street parking, between what ought to be and what is. In inner city suburbs like Enmore and Stanmore, Marrickville Council is caught in this struggle.

One of the most stressful aspects of urban living is the shortage of parking. Suburbs that sprang up in the Victorian era, when there was no such thing as a motor car, are now undergoing gentrification; households often have more than one car but few houses have off-street parking.

Given the convenience of public transport in area, why do these people need cars? Partly it’s snobbery. Does your solicitor join the plebs on a bus to work? Would your doctor be seen dead in a train? Partly it’s necessity. With both parents working, try juggling work hours, childcare drop-offs and pick-ups, and Saturday sport all over the city. However much people might agree in principle with the environmental benefits of public transport and bicycle riding, often these are just not viable options.

Stanmore, 2014.

Stanmore, 2014.

Shortage of street parking spaces is made worse by visitors to the area. Now that Enmore has become a ‘vibrant entertainment precinct’ hundreds of customers come in the evenings to attend performances or enjoy the many new restaurants, bars and cafes. And they don’t necessarily want to travel across the city in public transport at night to get home. So they infiltrate ever-deeper into residential territory to find parking for their cars. Residents jealously guard driveways (if they have them) and fume when they have to park blocks away from their homes. Marrickville Council knows all this and is trying to address the problem with committee meetings, surveys, community consultation, plans and projects.

Enmore, 2014. Enmore Theatre is in the background.

So why is Council intent on reducing the amount of parking in contested areas, rather than finding extra spaces? It’s because they are also committed to an Urban Forest Strategy that ‘recognizes the urban forest as an essential, living infrastructure asset and resource that provides a wide range of social, environmental and economic benefits’.

And this is what has prompted the demonstration project in Cavendish Street, Enmore, where large Lilli Pilli trees have been planted in structured soil in the roadway. I wrote about this project in my earlier post ‘What lies beneath’. And even though ‘permeable paving’ means that the space taken up by tree-planting ‘blisters’ is smaller than would normally be needed to keep trees healthy, there is no question that parking spaces have been lost. Residents of the street are supposed to have agreed to this arrangement, but they probably would have agreed to any scheme that saw the former huge, inappropriate and destructive fig trees removed from their footpaths.

Enmore, 2014. One tree gained, two parking spaces lost.

Enmore, 2014. One tree gained, two parking spaces lost.

Meanwhile parking pressure on nearby streets has been increased just that bit extra. What’s more, Marrickville’s draft Master Street Plan has Lilli Pilli (Waterhousia floribunda) or similarly large trees slated for some of these same streets. Given the narrowness of the verges, this must mean more in-road planting and more parking lost. Residents of these streets are not going to be too happy about this.

A 2013 survey of residents in the Marrickville Local Government Area found that most people like having greenery in their suburbs. Of course. But what the survey doesn’t mention is that householders also like to park close to their homes and businesses don’t want customers put off by lack of parking. Until a whole lot of things in the world change, this reliance on cars and the need for parking isn’t going to go away. In-road planting is an impractical component of the urban forest strategy and would have measurable social and economic costs. An ideological commitment to such a component would have a detrimental, not a beneficial, effect on the local area. Small trees, please.

Enmore, 2014.

Enmore, 2014.

Walking on clouds

The public artwork by Jason Wing in Chinatown is so appealing that night-time shots of it – like images of the Opera House – are frequently used in promotional material to illustrate just how artistic/ vibrant/ innovative/ cultural/ multicultural Sydney really is. Commissioned by the City of Sydney in 2011, Between Two Worlds incorporates ‘themes of heaven and earth, the elements, and respect for ancestors past and present ‘.

'Between Two Worlds' by Jason Wing in Kimber Lane, Sydney (photographs by meganix 2014)

‘Between Two Worlds’ by Jason Wing in Kimber Lane, Sydney (photographs by meganix 2014)

At night the glowing blue spirit figures suspended over the dingy service lane are visually dominant, but in the daytime it is the ‘auspicious clouds’ on the roadway and walls that first catch the eye.

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Naturally I am interested in an installation that includes ‘floor murals’ (as the City of Sydney calls them), and last week I paid a visit to see how these were faring after three years of wear and tear. After all, the vulnerability of artistic mediums (whether paint, plumbing or electronics) means that public artworks do not always survive interaction with the public.

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It turns out that the pavement clouds are going well. The etchings on the granite pavers at the corners of the laneway are proving resilient and most of the paint on the concrete roadway has lasted. It must be a blue version of the kind of tough paint used for traffic marks. It’s all looking very grubby, and in places there are gaps in the clouds where the concrete has been patched or worn away by leaking water, but to me this is fitting for the element of an artwork that seems to be reflecting (or asking us to reflect on) the tribulations of our earthly existence. Life wasn’t meant to be easy.

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The walls are still looking good too and I could only find one place where the clouds have been overprinted with graffiti. But again, this seems appropriate, especially given Jason Wing’s background as a graffiti artist.

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But it is the host of airborne spirits that appears to have suffered the most. A building next to Kimber Lane has been demolished and with it a wall that supported several of these ‘little dudes’ (as comedian and art commentator Hannah Gadsby calls them). Four of them have vanished. Perhaps they are waiting in some kind of limbo until a shiny new apartment block is built. And then they will be reinstated to their watchful heavenly posting above the clouds. But that might take a while, because at the moment it looks as though the empty site is being made into a parking lot.

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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.

It’s all over

In February and we are supposed to be back at work. Holiday time is all over. I didn’t go away for the holidays, but we’ve been lucky enough to have beautiful weather in Sydney and there’s plenty to do here – beaches, parks, entertainment venues. I had a good time.

For instance, one evening I went to a children’s ballet concert at the Seymour Centre in Chippendale.

Forecourt of the Seymour Centre performing arts theatre

Forecourt of the Seymour Centre performing arts theatre

On another day I visited a corner of Sydney Olympic Park and did some bird-watching round the mangroves and water bird refuge.

Bridge over Haslams Creek in Sydney Olympic Park

Bridge over Haslams Creek in Sydney Olympic Park

And on a blazingly sunny day I drove to the Manly headland and looked out over the Cabbage Tree Bay Marine Reserve.

Parking area overlooking the ocean and Cabbage Tree  Bay Marine Reserve at Manly

Parking area overlooking the ocean and Cabbage Tree Bay Marine Reserve at Manly

That crime scene body outline. It’s all over the place. I can’t get over the pervasiveness of this simple graphic – as if its invention satisfied some yawning gap in our visual vocabulary. I’ve written about it before on this blogsite here, here and here.

I also devoted a section of my thesis to the body outline. And that’s another thing that’s all over. During the past twelve months I finished the thesis, it was examined, and I have received notification that I have ‘satisfied the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Macquarie University’. I am only a graduation ceremony away from becoming the real thing.

The project was called Pavement graffiti: an exploration of roads and footways in words and pictures. With that done I am looking ahead to the next thing. So the blogsite Pavement graffiti might be all over, too. I’m thinking this could be one of my last posts before I start a new blog.

Body outlines

The 1950-60s television courtroom drama, Perry Mason, is said to have been the first detective show to feature either a tape or a chalk outline to mark the spot where a murder victim’s body had been found. The body outline made its first appearance in the episode ‘The case of the perjured parrot’. The writer of the show, Erle Stanley Gardner, had actually used this idea much earlier in the book, ‘Double or quits, which he wrote in 1941 under the pen name A.A.Fair (see Perry Mason TV series).

Ever since then the body outline has not only been used regularly in murder stories and television shows, but it is very often adaptively reused in illustrations alluding to all sorts of crime and fatality. It is a symbol — based on a fiction —  that is continually modified, re-invented and re-purposed. We recognise it in newspaper cartoons, TV commercials and political protests and we understand what is meant.

In New York I came across two instances of the symbolic body outline, both associated with the New York Public Library. The first was in an exhibition, Why we fight: remembering AIDS activism, which recently opened at  the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. One of the exhibits was this poster from the library’s archives. It was produced in 1988 by ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a deliberately confrontational organisation that was formed to challenge government inaction over AIDS.

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The other body outline was on one of the plaques along the section of 41st Street known as Library Way. These sidewalk plaques carry inspirational quotes about reading, writing, and literature. The one I photographed reads:

… a great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it. William Styron (1935 –  ), Writers at Work.

To me, the embossed illustration on the plaque seems very odd. The reader of the book looks, not exhausted, but dead (presumably in a hiatus between two of those ‘several lives’).

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Tax Wall Street

On 42nd Street, near the New York Public Library, I spotted fresh chalk notices. Of course I had to photograph them even though I didn’t get a chance to read them properly because it was the evening rush hour and the sidewalks were crowded with people on their way home from work.

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Then I noticed there were more police about than usual and suddenly I realised there was a protest march coming down the avenue, timed to disrupt the maximum number of people. Marchers were confined to the sidewalk and were accompanied by a phalanx of police motor cycles in the kerbside traffic lane. It was quite a sight.

The issue was the ‘Robin Hood Tax’ or, more properly, a Financial Speculation (or Transaction) Tax. Supporters of such a tax maintain it is a way to raise funds to meet human needs, like protecting public services, tackling poverty and dealing with climate change. The date was 17 September, the two-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.

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It was good to see a strong showing from Occupy Wall Street. The previous weekend a small group claiming to be Occupy Wall Street was occupying space amongst all the weekend goings-on in Union Square. Their presence was not very impressive.

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Tunnel crossing

Tunnels are favourite locations for graffiti, not only tags and ‘writing’ but also creative — though unofficial —  public artworks. The ephemeral nature of these makes them more interesting than the durable commissioned murals that are sometimes painted or tiled on tunnel walls. However charming or sophisticated the official works might be, they can become boring for people who pass that way day after day.

In Antwerp there is a pedestrian tunnel underneath the railway line between Centraal Station and Berchem. It has several artworks painted, pasted or projected on the walls, floor and even the ceiling.

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Naturally I like the zebra crossing, given my interest in the symbolism of crosswalks. Perhaps, given the amount of bicycle and even motorcycle traffic in the tunnel, the artist had in mind that pedestrians needed assistance to cross safely from one side to the other, should they wish to do so. Or perhaps the artist wanted to encourage people to go against the flow, although going against the flow in this case would only bring you up against a brick wall.

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My thanks to Duncan, a fellow participant at the Visual Methods Seminar at the University of Antwerp, for finding this pedestrian crossing for me. Thanks also to Alan for demonstrating the use of the crossing for the photo.

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