23rd September 1910

LEON sat at The Royal Mail Hotel on Bay Street in Port Melbourne, his stool pressed against the bar and both hands wrapped around a pint of local brew. His mates were getting their final beers in before last drinks were called a few minutes to six o’clock.

They were going home to their wives or boarding houses, but Leon was about to leave for work. Every Thursday night on the eve of sunset, he would don his overalls, work boots and apron, and begin his night watchman shift. In the distance he could hear ‘Hey! Dunny can man!’ and it was repeated a few times until he became present and said ‘G’day!’ with a confident smile. Leon was a dreamer, a visionary and he knew he had a revolution to lead. His father worked at the docks with odd jobs after hours, so he was rarely at home with the family. His mother was occupied looking after his five younger brothers and sisters and once they’d gone to bed each night, she would begin her casual work washing workers’ clothes. Leon missed out on his childhood helping raise his siblings. He desperately wanted freedom and opportunity, not just for himself, but for his entire family and mates around him. The cycle had to stop, and Leon left the pub deep in thought ‘how?’.

He strolled slowly watching the street, noticing the intricacies of manmade structures and nature, and how people moved between them. Picking up his gear and heading toward his first laneway, his environment looked different. The houses were the same, the gardens hadn’t changed. It just seemed to feel different being there.

The sun started setting as he reached his first outhouse and as he crouched to lift up the back flap and empty the pot, illuminous bricks caught his attention. The back fence was made with a mottled mosaic of red variants on a rough surface that looked like it was dancing and moving in glory of the sun. At the end of his shift Leon purposely walked back via the wall that had such a profound impact on him.

The wall, however, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the area which occupied the movement of people had transformed into a structured lay of the land, the pathways glowing from the grout between the bricks. There were empty blocks, busy blocks and solid strong blocks, but those blocks were only viewed when up close. The movement of people he had seen earlier became an organized movement with purpose. Falling asleep he wondered what he could see in the other back fences of Melbourne’s laneways

When the pub closed the next evening, he hit the laneways again, even though his shift was only once a week. Free of his dunny cart and route schedule, Leon brought paint.

As he sat on a small stool looking up at the mosaic brickwork, he realized he could make his art in a way that those who understood the worker’s plight could see their story, and those that couldn’t would see an entirely different picture with naivety. The change in story over sunset, would be the call to arms. People will meet in the laneways at sunset after the pub and organize a way for freedom and opportunity to be a way of life. And thus the revolution began.

Over the coming weeks Leon made his way through the laneways of Port Melbourne and Albert Park finding different ways to paint the same story. The fences were different, the trees and foliage were different and different places had different light sources. People would go initially to see the artwork for themselves. It would only take one experience to want another. Leon established places where people would meet to grow collectively. ‘Let’s create our own jobs!’ became his mantra at the pub, and would echo down the laneways at dusk.

Adopting an impressionist style captivated people’s attention. It was as if the laneway art spoke to them differently each night. The white walls were often brushed with gold symbolising the people in power who take opportunity away from others. Ivy fences represented the cracks in society. Over the course of a sunset its story would unfold through illuminate leaves, each defined in features and showcasing its new growth.

As the sun disappears the ivy begins to look lifeless and groups of leaves blend into one. Purple brush strokes start to come out and the red becomes brassy. Finally, the leaves all appear as one and the bright green paint remains. The wooden fence morphs into a movement that’s rising from the earth. The grass roots bear witness to their starting perspective, and from there they dream big dreams. Purple and lime flower impressions ensure people check in with reality. Blue stone walls are the reflective places where everyone remembers where they have come from and checks in with their own God. Gratitude is shared, new is embraced and respect is given to all.

 Around these art pieces, on neighbouring fences, new art began to emerge, each telling its own story. A vision or past event, a learning or a way, which then entered the collective body of knowledge for the community. Black grids began appearing on white walls to complement the gold. Crowds would wait patiently to have their turn to stare at the grid and watch circles appear and disappear before their eyes. The experience would trigger an entirely new perspective on their current thinking and help progress all areas of their lives. When people were stuck in their thinking, they would stare into a red circle and when they’d look away, there would be a green after image which helped focus and decide on next action.

  Leon’s Thursday night shift was never alone again. Following him were a procession of artists who’d walk the walk with him. Leon started a movement where everyone had the opportunity to create their own job. And thus Melbourne’s laneway art scene was born.


Acknowledgements

Dr. Simon Cooper, Sensation and perception lecturer, Melbourne University.

Mr. Tobias Sherson, my husband who shared sunset experience and local history research.

References

Image 1: Holtermann collection, State Library of New South Wales. (c.1872). Bay Street, Sandridge[picture].

<https://www.planning.vic.gov.au/resource-library/incorporated-documents/port-phillip/port-C143-Port-Phillip-Heritage-Review-Volumes-1-6-Version-25,-May-2018_Part5.pdf>

Accessed 22 January 2019

Image 2: Bannan family and friends collection, State Library of Victoria. (c.1914). Graffiti on brick wall.

<http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/41388>

Accessed 22 January 2019

Image 3: Barnett, F., & Victoria. Housing Investigation Slum Abolition Board. (1935). North Melbourne. Canning Place. [picture].

<http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/270545>

Accessed 22 January 2019

Image 4: Museums Victoria Collections. (c.1910-1914). Glass Negative – Robert & Edythe Ellison Havie Standing in Garden, Melbourne. [picture]. 

<https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/760960>
Accessed 22 January 2019

Cropper, S. (2014). ‘Nature makes abstract visual art more captivating’, The Conversation.

Lehrer, J. (2011). ‘Proust was a Neuroscientist’, Text Publishing. Chapter 5, pp.96-119.

Monnier, P. & Shevell, S. (2003). ‘Large shifts in color appearance from patterned chromatic backgrounds’, Brief Communications, Nature Neuroscience. Vol.6, No.8, August 2003, pp.801-802.

Shevell, S. & Kingdom, F. (2008). ‘Color in complex scenes’, The Annual Review of Psychology. Pp.143-66.