If you’ve lived in Newcastle - or even if you’ve visited briefly – chances are you have walked by, jogged past or had a happy-snap taken in front of one of Trevor Dickinson’s large-scale public pieces of art. The whimsical, interactive and colourful designs are as much a part of the Newcastle back-drop as the surfers at Merewether or the “tower” at Queens Wharf or Fort Scratchley atop King Edwards or - ok you get the idea!
The fact is, Trevor is obsessed with drawing and painting this beautiful city of ours – whenever he can and wherever he can find a blank space – legally of course!
Like many, Trevor isn’t a native Novacastrian (his accent is a dead giveaway) – but is proud to call Newcastle home for the past 13 years and has put more of a stamp on this city (literally!) than the rest of us probably will in a lifetime. We recently caught up with Trevor to find out a little about his work, himself and where to next.
What drew you to the field of Graphic Design and where did you hone your talents?
As a boy I adored Marvel comics, I read the British black and white reprints and I think the lack of colour helped me fall in love with the drawing. I would copy them badly and realize how out of my league the artists were; it started my lifelong interest in line art.
You’re not a native Novacastrian – so where do you hail from and what brought you to Newcastle?
I’m from Swindon in the west of England (it’s mentioned a lot in Ricky Gervaise’s Office) and at 18 years old I moved to London to study printed textile design. I lived there for around twenty years designing fashion prints for a lot of the large UK stores. I specialized in kids wear, an area where humour is often a main feature. I also had a good reputation for working with licensed brands like Star Wars, The Simpsons, Rolling Stones, and Thomas the Tank Engine – although, after a while I grew quite sick of his grinning face!
My Australian wife Jo and I wanted to move out of London but we couldn’t agree on anywhere in England, so we chose to move here and arrived with our daughters Ella and Lucy in 2002. We lived in Waratah at first because Jo’s grandmother had recently died and left the house to her parents. I hadn’t heard of Newcastle before then, and after living in London it took a lot of getting used to.
In my first few years here I continued working for the UK, but also designed a lot for the Sydney Company Fred Bare, all from my garage in New Lambton. Working for myself at home meant it was harder to meet people and connect with the place. As I got more fed up with the fact that I hadn’t really engaged in Newcastle, I started to go out on my bike to look for things to draw. Pretty soon this developed into my current project Newcastle Productions.
Your work has a whimsical quality to it – often asking the viewer to have the ability to laugh at oneself (which Aussies are pretty good at). In what way do you find the British sense of humour different to the Australian sense of humour and has this altered the work you have produced since moving to Australia?
Anyone who travels to a foreign country will see it with fresh eyes and this is what I chose to represent. I usually aim to have some kind of new angle to the subjects and finding a good visual gag on the street is enough to make me spend time drawing it.
I was initially trying to highlight elements that were different to the UK but it soon morphed into an obsession with drawing under-represented details. I think these speak volumes about an urban environment, I also like the ground level localism that the drawings appeal to. So I draw signs, billboards, post boxes, urban trees, bus shelters etc. I do my best to find the ridiculous whenever possible, but sometimes the humour is just in the fact that I have spent three hours on a sad drawing of an overflowing wheelie bin.
At the time I had no idea if Novocastrians would find the drawings funny or offensive. Australians may laugh at themselves, but not so much about where they live. I’ve heard people say that Newcastle is the best place in the world; that’s not something you hear in Swindon.
The big test was when I put the work on sale at the Newcastle Christmas markets in 2009. The response was overwhelmingly positive. My drawing of the "Mayfield, worth visiting" sign got one of the best reactions – mainly from Mayfield locals. Is “worth visiting” all they could find to say about Mayfield? People “got” what I was doing and the experience encouraged me to carry on with the drawings.
Since then Newcastle Productions has become a full time job. When I can find humour on the streets I’ll use it. It gets harder, but I still try to see the city with the eye of a foreigner and things still turn up. I find it’s the best way to keep the work fresh.
Your works range from large scale murals to postcards and everything in between – do you have a favourite? What challenges do the scale of each piece contribute to the end results?
The backbone of everything I do is the drawing, I’m always looking for new subjects, once I do a drawing it’s a straightforward process to develop them into prints, cards, and occasionally tea towels and magnets. Apart from the magnets (printed in Melbourne) I make and pack everything in my studio. Jobs like printing and hand-cutting 300 postcards can feel like drudgery, but it has to be done to keep the art going, and after years of working for other brands it feels good to have total control of all my work.
The murals are very different and hard to compare. The works can be around for a very long time and it’s important for the mural to connect with the public as much as it can. I don’t want to paint an image on the wall without taking into account the location or purpose. I love painting the murals but going into a large scale job can be scary, mainly because of the time commitment, painting with a brush is a slow process - but so nice to do.
Some of your large-scale murals have been commissioned by Newcastle Council – who seem to have fallen in love with your work. How did that relationship come about? What do you see as the benefits of large scale public pieces for the community?
The first mural I ever painted was commissioned by the Council’s Anti-Graffiti team in 2010, it was on the temporary boards outside the Lucky Country Hotel on Hunter Street. They found me through my zines and prints that were available around Newcastle. Right from the start I regarded it as a huge privilege to be allowed to put my work into such a public arena. Since then the council has commissioned nearly all the murals I’ve done, and I have been offered some fantastic sites.
My favorite mural is usually my most recent; at the moment it’s the Merewether Tunnel. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take it on because the space was so unappealing and I didn’t want to spend a couple of winter months down there. Then one day, as I was walking down the stairs to check it out, I got the idea of painting a Newcastle version of the Sydney Aquarium Tunnel, it seemed so obvious, every city needs an aquarium and I wanted to see if I could pull it off.
The tunnel was only really used by locals as a route to the beach, but I wanted to turn it into a 24 hour a day attraction. I put a big effort into the entrances as it needed to feel like an exciting space to enter, like a fairground sideshow encouraging you to go in.
I’m usually working alone in a studio so painting a mural is quite a different experience. Every day I get to hear comments and encouragement from passers. I even had a local school come along and sing a song about the tunnel, I don’t get that at home.
I updated the progress every day on the Newcastle Productions facebook page and towards the end it felt like I was getting cheered along like an exhausted marathon runner. Social networking is a huge part of my process, it’s an incredibly useful tool for getting the work seen.
I know that people use my paintings backdrops for photographs and I design them with this in mind. My hope is that my murals will become part of the Newcastle landscape, and even when the paintings are long gone they’ll survive in plenty of photo albums.
The Newcastle Council have fully supported all my murals and they check and maintain them regularly, the anti graffiti team also makes sure that none of the tagging lasts for long, except for the one that I asked Mark Richards to do.
How would you describe Newcastle to someone who had never been here before and what is it about Newcastle that inspires your work? Do you think you have enabled Novacastrians to see their city differently?
I know it’s a cliché to say this, but it’s an easy place to live, the beaches are lovely, the people are nice, it’s easy to get around (I’m a cyclist), the weather is usually fantastic, it’s got a great Art Gallery and some of the best murals in the universe.
I have a Renew Newcastle space in Hunter Street Mall, and (despite all those rumours about it being an empty wasteland) the place is buzzing during the day.
All Newcastle needs now is a couple of English pubs with comfortable chairs, warm beer and no TVs!
I’m probably inspired to draw Newcastle because of the convenience of drawing the environment where I live, I’m just lucky that it’s an interesting place with older buildings and diverse subjects. I search for subjects that not only look good but also have a resonance to the people that live here.
I hope my drawings help people to see Newcastle differently, I once read that the job of an artist is to point things out, this neatly describes what I hope to do. I also heard that someone said they didn’t like the council office until they saw my drawing of it, and that’s exactly what I want to hear. I’m always looking at subjects from a new angle and trying to represent them from my own slightly warped point of view. I want to reassess even the most mundane subject and make it feel iconic.
You were recently commissioned by the organisers of “Groovin’ the Moo” to create a number of “selfie-boards” to tour the country with each show. Can you tell us a little about how the idea for these came about and how festival-goers will use the boards? Were selfie boards a natural progression from your photo-walls?
The selfie boards, or “Moowalls’ as we called them for GTM, are based on the photo wall murals that I painted at the Newcastle museum and Mayfield pool. The original idea was to paint interactive murals that are designed as backdrops for photographs. The Museum walls have been so popular that the grass in front of them had to be replaced due to over-use. Steve Halpin from GTM suggested designing some portable photo walls for the festival. I did a couple of large walls but I also came up with some smaller versions specifically for selfies. People can stand in front of the boards and photograph themselves as if they are on the front of a magazine, as an angel or with a hatchet lodged in their head.
It seems that within a relatively short time Trevor Dickinson has become a household name throughout Newcastle – you’ve really made a mark on our local community. Where to from here for Trevor Dickinson?
I’m working on an exhibition for Maitland Regional Art Gallery. It’ll be a portrait of Maitland and will open in October 2016. It’s a very diverse and slightly weird place, exactly what I like to draw.
I draw a lot in Canberra and I’m working on a project with Action Buses to draw some of the transport infrastructure. I know nothing about buses, but that doesn’t bother me, they’re fun to draw, and it’ll give me a sense of power as I direct buses to pose in front of national landmarks.
Apart from that, the best thing about my job is that I have no idea what I’m going to be doing next!
Newcastle Productions is stocked at Studio Melt on Hunter Street Mall, Newcastle Regional Museum, online at www.trevordickinson.com and via facebook at www.facebook.com/NewcastleProductions.