NEVER has an artist used Newcastle as both their muse and canvas more than Trevor Dickinson.
Plotting the locations of his instantly recognisable murals on a map is like watching a painting obscure a blank page: Newcastle Beach, Mayfield Swimming Centre, the Merewether Beach tunnel and nearby Beach Hotel, inside and outside Newcastle Museum and even the dartboard at Lambton Park Hotel.
This doesn’t include his works on hoardings outside The Lucky Hotel and inside Charlestown Square, which have since been dismantled.
But after about five years of capturing the icons and idiosyncrasies of his much-loved adopted hometown, English-born Dickinson has drawn only five scenes of the city over the past two years.
Instead, his focus has shifted a short distance down the road: Greetings From Maitland, a 27-piece exhibition by Dickinson, opens on Saturday at Maitland Regional Art Gallery with an accompanying book.
Maitland is the only city he has captured intending to create a comprehensive body of work.
“The aim is to help people re-interpret what is around them and to see their city in a new way,” Dickinson says. “When you’re familiar with a place you just don’t notice things. We need to slow down and maybe walk or cycle to take things in, but even then, we’re so used to something we still don’t take it all in.
“It’s also a challenge for me, to come in as a stranger to a town and pick a subject and see if it resonates with the locals – and I enjoy that process.”
Dickinson’s Maitland works, as with his Newcastle images, span the quintessential, the quirky and everyday. They range from a 3.5-metre by 11-metre “paste-up” of the landmark Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills shed on Morpeth Road in East Maitland, to the historic Grand Junction Hotel to quirky “horse dung for sale” signage on Louth Park Road.
Dickinson approached the gallery about an exhibition in mid-2014, just prior to starting working on the Merewether Beach tunnel mural.
Wary of his increasingly problematic familiarity with Newcastle, he intentionally did not research or travel to Maitland before this year, when he made the first of what would be about 20 visits.
“If I see something and it says something to me, that’s what I’m trying to put onto paper,” he says. “I push the background back so the object I’m trying to draw comes forward. Often I see faces in house or church windows and it gives them a character.”
Dickinson had just signed a contract to co-illustrate three children's books when he arrived in Newcastle at the end of January 2002 with his Australian wife Jo and their two daughters Ella, then 8, and Lucy, then 6.
He still remembers drawing the infamous "Men, do it longer!" billboard on Lambton Road at Broadmeadow on January 1, 2009, and later spent more than three hours capturing the council administration building.
“I'm picking things that feel slightly foreign, slightly different,” he told the Herald in 2011. “In doing that - not on purpose - but it turns out I'm doing quite Australian things, things that people take for granted or don't notice.”
Dickinson’s drawings of everyday scenes, alongside his depictions of more widely recognised sites, struck a chord.
His Newcastle Productions prints remain his bread and butter, especially the King Edward Park rotunda, Nobbys Beach, Newcastle from Stockton and the sign ‘Mayfield: worth visiting’. They are available with other merchandise including cards and tea-towels online (he packs every envelope himself) and from Studio Melt and Newcastle Museum.
“When I first started doing it, it was like releasing a single: ‘Is this going to be a hit?’” he says. “Some will get picked up, some will sink without a trace.
“I did not know if people would think I was taking the piss. I would not be spending all of this time drawing it if it was a joke. But when people started buying I thought ‘I’m on the right track here - people get it’.”
Determined to avoid distractions, he rented a Renew Newcastle space in Newcomen Street for a year, before moving to a light-filled space on the third floor of Wolfe Street Studios, where he has been for about 18 months. It’s a prime position to watch the city evolve.
“I need to do a few more of Newcastle, I feel I haven’t done Newcastle as much as I should have - I need to see it fresh again,” he says.
“That’s the trouble with what I do - the more I get to know a place it’s harder to find the quirky things. It has become a job, trying to retain that innocence with how you’re looking at the city. With Maitland I was like an outsider, I could look for any building that took my fancy.”
Dickinson got a taste of this outsider view in 2012, when he won a six-week residency to work from Megalo Print Studio and Gallery in Canberra. The National Portrait Gallery and National Library of Australia stocked the ensuing merchandise, which he says “really allowed me to become a full-time visual artist”.
He continues adding to the body of work - his most popular drawing is of Parliament House with a ‘wrong way go back’ sign - and travels to the capital up to six times each year to sell his work at markets. He has been commissioned by Action Buses to draw some of its fleet and is also working on an exhibition of 50 Canberra bus shelters.
The Maitland exhibition is a long way from his two-day pop up exhibition in 2013 at Nobbys Lighthouse, where his unframed work pegged on fishing line started to curl from the ambient moisture.
“This is the first time I’ve had people framing everything, installing, someone dedicated to choosing the colours of the walls - it’s quite a luxury and I can see why people become artists,” he says. “All I’ve got to think about is doing as good a work as possible.”
It’s also a more cohesive collection.
“With Newcastle I’ve just been drawing as I’ve gone along, but when I’d done 10 pictures of Maitland I could look at it as a body of work and see what was missing,” he says. “I could go and look for things which could add to the whole exhibition.”
But this work has also proven to be a reflection - and represents a peculiar quandary - about how substantially his style has changed. “As I get more skilled at drawing I’m finding it takes me two to three times longer with every image,” he says. “I’m much more into details and the colouring has got more sophisticated, but there is a tendency to just be too detailed. I did not even used to do backgrounds! When I see my older works they are much simpler. There was something fresh about it and I think I’ve got to go back to that.”
Dickinson still occasionally does work for Disney in England, especially on Star Wars.
While he relishes the opportunities that have come with building his career, he is also aware of the dangers and limits of his craft becoming too commercial.
“Nobbys always sells,” he says. “But I try and find a new approach to everything I do that is different to what’s out there. I also like setting myself challenges - I have not captured the ocean yet. When I do draw nowadays I do think ‘That’s going to go onto a card or in a shop’. So my favourite thing is just do a drawing for myself. It’s quite a luxury to be able to do that.”
Five years ago Dickinson dreamed of travelling around Australia in a campervan. He still has that desire - providing it has an end result, such as an exhibition, and is considering targeting Brisbane, Adelaide, Lightning Ridge or Broken Hill.
“I’m not making a fortune but making a living, enough to carry on doing it,” he says. “I need to find something I want to draw, but that I could sell as well. I feel the Maitland exhibition is a project I can take to other galleries fully formed, although I would probably need a residency or reason to stay there for a while.”
Dickinson plans to publish a book of his Newcastle works, including his murals, and start drawing the city again.
His personal favourite works of recent years are a graffiti-strewn bus in Canberra (since converted to a restaurant) and a tired-looking fountain outside Maitland Library (since refurbished).
“I like capturing these things before they are gone,” he says. “I see my work as a record of a moment in time.”