Draw me like one of your Melbourne girls

Rayannon Innes

Often, people make the judgement that Newcastle is a place that has big city feel in a small city appeal. That’s quite a generalist way to look at a city that realistically, doesn’t know what to make of itself.

It yearns for the title of Art City one day, and a Smart City the next. It’s a mini-me Melbourne, if you find yourself in the wrong alleyway or a ‘world-class urban village with a Soho feel’, if you ask one of those faceless pedestrians in the latest urban development artist’s impression. Fortunately, the artists who have contributed to this book have faces, and better yet, impressions of a city that speak much more honestly to the culture that makes this place what it so uniquely is.

As the colour-loving, abstract art force Mel O’Dell perfectly summed up: “Newcastle is like a pre-pubescent teen… it’s still finding its way in the world”

We’re proud and stubborn all at once. A girl from out of town – probably Fitzroy – laughed at the unintended stiffy we had, so we did everything in our power to hide it, and fast. We were once unjaded, like most before adolescence, where our unusual parts gave us individuality and laughter. Now, we’re doing anything we can to fit in with the popular kids, which seemingly means planting a lot of palm trees because Tel Aviv dared us to.

This disruptive period in Newcastle’s history definitely isn’t its defining moment. “When you’re older, you’re going to fondly look back upon the towers, trees, and sandwich shops that made you”. This motherly manta is something very familiar to the creative community that resides here.

Take the origin story of local illustrator icon and not-so Novocastrian Trevor Dickinson, for example. Having found himself in a city both culturally and aesthetically unfamiliar to his hometown in England, Trevor was inspired by the intriguing elements of the city that went forcefully ignored or completely unnoticed altogether. Road signs, bus shelters, and dated suburban homes became illuminated through the cheeky outsiders’ eye that Trevor brought through his work. When he then printed these illustrations upon mugs and tea towels and sold them alongside the mass of seascape magnet competitors, not only were the tourists buying in bulk, the locals were now finally learning to laugh at themselves - and even have a little pride in that fact.  

Award-winning children’s book illustrator and fellow pommy-Novo Liz Annelli shares a similar story. When it comes to carving the creative identity for the city of Newcastle, Liz literally put in the legwork. With a love for exploring a new city by foot, the Essex-born illustrator yearned to document the unique details that she found the streets and sights of Newcastle constantly revealing to her. What would result was a series of topographic maps which illustrated a city buzzing with activity and character. It was a Newcastle that the locals hadn’t taken the time to look around and realise but thanks to Liz, these maps were inspiring people to step outside of their four-wheeled boxes, to explore, and to understand the city once more. 

(cont. below)

Image 1: Onwards Studio home to Brett Piva & Tom Henderson, image by Zoe Lonergan
2: Trevor Dickinson in his Renew Newcastle Studio, image supplied by the artist
3: Mel O’Dell unveiling her mural at local venue: Tiny Boat at Softy’s, image by lazybones photography
4: Carl Morgan in his Renew Newcastle Studio, image courtesy of HunterHunter
5: Liz Anelli in her Renew Newcastle Studio, image supplied by the artist

Of course, Newcastle’s arts icons aren’t all English imports, although they often come from the bushier corners of the country. Graphic designer Carl Morgan, for example, left the rural Victorian town of Shepparton to pursue his studies and a subsequent career in graphic design. Hold up, a design student chose Newcastle over Melbourne? That’s a cultural hate crime… this must be some kind of mean joke? Is this book all phallic comparisons and statements in cultural cringe? I can assure you, this is autobiographical fact. At a time when Myspace had hardly washed up on the shores of Merewether, Carl was creating exciting brand identities for equally exciting businesses and projects. 

One of these very clients continues to be the not-for-profit organisation Renew Newcastle, which works in activating the CBD – a place once considered too scary by men in their middle ages to visit – through facilitating local creatives’ occupation of vacant commercial spaces.

Creatives supporting creatives, supporting an emerging creative culture? That’s art and smart city, simultaneously. And perhaps that’s the answer that this hormone fuelled city needs to collectively realise. Newcastle needn’t yearn to be something that it’s not. It has so many defining qualities already, even if they are just the marvellously mundane.  

Coffee shop signs are gilded in gold leaf, warehouse walls are licked up into murals, under-18’s are launching record labels and they’re designing the t-shirts and posters to tell you about it. You’d be hard-pressed to find a man nor their dog that doesn’t have a favourite boutique barber nor dog-friendly café that they wouldn’t religiously visit on the weekend.

The old belief that you have to leave Newcastle to gain a meaningful career – creative or otherwise – is well and truly dead and buried. We have a number of passionate, risk-taking creatives to thank for some of that.

Before another palm tree-laden urban oasis is announced, let’s remember to not uproot what has made this city so culturally vibrant to this day.    

Authors note:
Born in the cool cat city of Newtown, moved around Australia’s eastern coast as a child, and having spent her teenage years in Melbourne, Rayannon is not unfamiliar with the “why the hell would you move here?” interrogation by the locals. Predictably, as it just so turns out, Ray loves this city like she’s lived here since day dot. There’s a distinct theme in which outsiders fall for Newcastle’s scruffy charm. Many will also leave for the big smoke but return wishing to clean their lungs out and maybe start a creative business while they’re at it. Either way, Newcastle, you got it going on. Don’t let the second-city angst peer pressure you into anything you don’t feel comfortable doing. You look beautiful without your makeup on, by the way.

This essay commisoned for the publication Dick Pics 2018, available to purchase here

Words by Rayannon Innes, Design by Dylan Smyth

*No reproduction or use of this essay or the content within it without prior approval.

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