52 Suburbs: Louise Hawson and the potential for sketching Sydney

April 30, 2011

Yesterday I had to take a train trip out from Redfern to Leightonfield for a work meeting. I passed the grandiose Russian church near Lidcombe/Sefton, with its golden domes glistening in the pearly overcast cloudiness of the morning and from the high vantage point of the train carriage, mapped out potential viewpoints on the streets below, outside the church from which to sketch it. That set me on the idea of an abcedary of Sydney suburbs sketched in fountain pen, a medium recommended by Nick Meglin, whose book I am currently reading.

 Tomorrow Louise Hawson publishes her books of photographs of Sydney. This is serendipitous because I’ve been wondering lately how to tackle this subject matter from a sketching perspective, one based closely on my professional work involving communications infrastructure across Sydney. One of my all-time favourite tv programs was a look at London over a 24hour period, especially the demands made on the infrastructure underpinning the daily life of its inhabitants. I identified strongly with the forgotten nightshift workers who make things run, the lives of workers who beetle away while the middle class blissfully go about their 9 to 5 existence. Life is not the same when you’ve worked on the ‘other’ side. Certainly there’s not a suburb postcode I don’t know off by heart. I’m au fait with Sydney’s history and multicultural present, their post offices old and new, the silent foundations of daily life on which Sydney sits. There are few suburbs I haven’t visited over the years. I moved house 21 times in the 20 years after leaving home at (by today’s standards) an early age. It will be an interesting exercise in balancing preconceptions with reality, something with which Hawson herself came to grips.

 She is slated to speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and I imagine she will talk about the context, background and her methodology. There has long been a huge preoccupation with property in Sydney and one of the first questions one is asked is where one is living or where one grew up in Sydney. Personal identity is inextricably linked with territorial markers; prejudices are huge when it comes to judging others and where they live in Sydney. Most of the suburbs are now technically cities in their own right, in itself reflecting a strong sense of individual identity. Early sociological studies of Sydney suburbia in the 1960s viewed the ‘burbs as monolothic and homogenous; it’s only recently that a reinterpretation, as offered by the City of Sydney Council for example, sees things more in terms of collection of “villages”.

 While some contemporary photographers have targetted Sydney suburban life, both in print and online, I can’t find too many references to Sydney suburban life being sketched in any comprehensive or rigorous way – not since Cedric Emmanuel’s published sketchbooks on various suburbs, dating from the 1970s. In style they tend to be illustrated guides along the lines of local historical walking tours. The online photographers seem to go for haunting shots at dawn or dusk, often with an absence of people to point up the drama. Hawson goes instead for the diptych, exploiting the synergy of oscillating between the built environment and the people, for example. She has a great eye for texture and colour, for pattern in clothing and tattoos – how we as individuals present ourselves to the world as design objects or Designer Objects or simply as Design.

What I like about Hawson’s approach is the schtick of an overarching discipline and rigour. Very interesting sketches of Sydney are a result of an outsider’s view, such as that of an overseas tourist. Others are more piece-meal, given that they are snatches or impressions gleaned by full-time working professionals whose main focus is justifiably and understandably elsewhere most of the time. Hawson’s own determination to grapple with things was the result of personal change; perhaps it’s the role of someone able to commit and willing to commit that a Sydney sketching project is likely to eventuate. Of course schtick is in fashion in literature: going without sex for a year, riding across a continent on a bicycle backwards. I guess it all started with Jules Verne’s Round the World in 80 Days. I’ve just found the weblog of a woman carving a linocut every day in 2011, another, a foreign guest worker located in Korea, has been doing the same thing since November 2010. I guess Cedric Emmanuel found success with one suburb captured in twenty pen sketches and went from there. The agenda of Emmanuel’s publisher was to find beauty in neglected suburbs, which mushroomed decades later as renovation and gentrification.

 The Royal Botanic Gardens sketching sessions, run as part of the Autumn of the Arts sponsored by The Sydney Morning Herald, have been a good grounding for me recently in sketching sessions repeated over time in a relatively small physical place. I am really missing the regular Saturday sketching at the Gardens. I can understand why Hawson kept going back to the same suburb every day for a week, allowing for changes of light and weather. In a similar style to urban sketchers, she says she avoid touristic stereotyping and the postcard view. She deployed as full a range of possible of figure drawing, portaits, object drawing and architectural illustration. On the built environment, the article in today’s Herald, provides an interesting quote by Hawson: “In the built environment, it;’s a bit about the handmade, the faded, the slightly tattered… Something that’s got a patina of time, that’s had a life and hasn’t been replaced by something that’s functional and is going to last longer.” Great potential here for sketching! In the 1930s, Sydney was set on a parficular course to become a High Victorian colonial capital. That changed. Radically. Typified by the development of William Street. I think I’ve witnessed a similarly radical makeover of the city in the last twenty years, during which time high-rise residential has blossomed. I’m old enough to remember when living in a flat or a unit in Sydney was a social no-no; now it’s the lifestyle choice of the majority and all the stigma has long gone.

 Choosing which Sydney suburbs to sketch will be an interesting exercise for me. The first thing to go for is those I know best – artists are good at working on well-loved and well-observed locations. Alternatively, suburbs which are physically closest to where I live and where have lived and worked in the past. Contrasting with that will be suburbs I’ve never seen up close or really observed. I’m old enough to remember when there was nothing between Parramatta and Penrith except farmland. Meglin oscillates between taking down impressions and ‘struggling’ with carefully-observed detail. I’m not sure of my schtick: picking suburbs Hawson left out? Spending a day in each, or a week? I’ve been playing around with ideas of combining past with the present and I know that recently Herald photographers have been creating composite photos juxtaposing the new over the old. On reflection, I’ll probably go June to December this year, one a week, in the form of an abcedary: 26 weeks, 26 suburbs, 26 weblog posts, A to Z (minus X).

 It would be great to involve others but most potentially enthusiastic sketchers in Sydney are caught up in their professional work and need variety and innovation during their time “off”. I like the idea that Hawson started out with a weekly blog, going online with her work and impressions presumably, before being taken up by both a publisher and exhibition curator. And it’s gone from there to an Etsy Corner Store selling postcards and eventually prints. A latter day Cedric Emmanuel, except with a camera. The strong following the blog obtained would have been just as much an identification individuals have with their place of residence or work as with the high quality of her photography and the new insights they provide on everyday life. Of course the diptych format underscores the need and potential for breaking down barriers, of exploring the greys in an otherwise black-and-white world.

We’ll see how I go with restating the same subject matter from a sketching perspective. I’ve been toying with my own Tempe Sketchbook based on some of the rapidly disappearing buildings and vistas in my local area. There is a local St Peters sketching group meeting on the first Saturday of every month. These days, of course, you ask “Where is the book?” Where are the postcards?” Just this week I ran a draft of some of my Royal Botanic Gardens through a 40-page test book via the vanity publishing website, www.blurb.com. It would be nice to present to family and friends my own personal homage to my city as a Christmas present. Like so many Sydneysiders, they are very much locked in to their own suburbs; I should feel honoured that I’ve ranged far and wide, and deeply, in the last fifty years when it comes to Sydney.

I look forward to attending various book launches and book talks to hear the author in person.


Hawson, Louise. 52 Suburbs: a Search for Beauty in the ‘Burbs. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2011. 528 pages. 16x19cm paperback. $39.95. The exhibition opens at the Museum of Sydney on 14 May – 9 Oct.

Maddox, Garry. Faces in the street. The Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum: Photography. 30 Apr-1 May 2011. p8.


www. swf.org.au


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