Trevor Dickinson doesn’t mind a beer. I had heard the rumours but didn’t buy into them. Brett Piva tried to warn me, but I didn’t listen. In line with the third instalment of the MAKEit MADEit conference on August 12th, I was invited to beer with Newcastle Productions sketchpert and conference key speaker, Trevor Dickinson. I found out firsthand that actually, we both enjoy beers on a school night a fair amount.
For those of us who don’t know, Trevor originated in merry old England, specialising in graphics and textiles for the fashion industry. Relocating to Newcastle in 2002, Trevor needed an excuse to get outdoors, and in 2009 started drawing scenes of merry old Newcastle. If you type ‘Trevor Dickinson’ into Google nowadays, you’re bound to recognise what you see.
The day following this cross-examination I typed up this interview with a headache. The day after that I realised it was a pretty inspiring conversation. Here it is without the headache.
How was the conference last year?
It was great.
Brett [Piva] said you would have a good perspective as an audience member from last year to now that you’re a key speaker.
Am I? I didn't know there was a key speaker.
You heard it here first.
Right. So does that mean I'll be the last speaker?
I didn't delve too far into it.
That's all right.
It's something pretty unique for Newcastle, isn't it?
We've had the Look Here ones going for a while, but it's a bit different from that. MAKEit MADEit is a full-day conference. A wide range of speakers and stories to tell.
You said in an interview once that you came to the drawing thing as a result of trying to get out of the office and connect to a place a bit more.
Oh, totally, yes. When I arrived I was just working in my studio. I trained in textile design and I specialised in childrenswear. I just found [that] I was just sitting in my office, and because I'd moved here and didn't know anyone, I wasn't meeting anyone.
It’s hard to get out of home when your whole life is there.
Yes, unless you’re really gregarious – also, Newcastle then didn't really have any kind of coherent scene like it does today.
I suppose things like the conference help to push along things like that now.
I just got really homesick. I was just sitting at home, sending stuff to England because I was working a lot for them still, and that was really it. I thought I needed to get out and engage, get fitter, go out on the bike. It was really about engaging with the place and getting back to drawing as well.
I notice you like/reference Evan Hecox. I really like all his stuff.
Yes, his stuff – him and Robert Crumb at the beginning – were the people that I really liked. Evan Hecox is very precise.
His colours he uses are great. Maybe it's the flat colour for me – I don't know what it is.
My background is in screen-printing, so the flat colour is preferable. When you’re in textiles – it's different now – but when I was doing it mainly for my job, everything was screen-printed. Now the process has changed and you can do a lot more technical stuff, but back then everything was limited to about three or four colours. In England, anyway – it was cheaper.
Did that help you creatively – you put yourself in a box and then you get creative within those parameters?
Oh, definitely, it's the limitations. With designing a T-shirt in the old days, they didn't really do edge-to-edge printing. You just had the size and you had a limit in the colours and also for me, because I was doing kidswear, you can't do anything offensive. So there were all these guidelines within that I had to work from.
Is that what happened with the letterboxes project?
Definitely. I decided it would be one to a hundred, and every picture has got to be from the same viewpoint – either left or right and three-quarters from my eye level. I gave myself all these rules, like setting myself a brief. It really helps.
Do you think you’re connecting with Newcastle as a result of projects like this?
Yes, absolutely. From doing the letterboxes – that's when I did my first markets. Doing the markets, you can actually start meeting people. You can't expect to arrive in a place without making an effort and think everyone is going be a friend. You need to actually get out and do it – without sounding desperate. The other thing was when I actually put the work out there, I didn't know if people would think I was mocking this place I’d just arrived in.
I didn’t think so.
I've had people say I was – but I wasn't, at least in my mind. I was out there drawing the things I found funny. They were on the street. I wouldn't sit and spend the day drawing something just to play a joke on everyone. It's what I love about drawing – rather than taking a picture, sitting there drawing it gives it a bit more resonance. Plus, drawing it, I can focus on exactly what I'm doing. Once I did it people were recognising it. The trees, for example – the wineglass-shaped cup in the trees – people obviously would have seen it in person. Once they saw the drawing, though, they started recognising it and laughing at it because suddenly it was being represented in a different way.
For sure – it turns it into something else when you hang it up on the wall.
Also an English guy coming along and thinking, ‘This is weird. This is something that we don't have in England.’
I think we have a lot of weird things going on here – you don't have letterboxes in the U.K?
Not that kind, no, only through the door. You have to walk up to the door.
What about in the countryside?
In a block of flats, you have to go up the stairs and post the letters. They don't have the big, plain letterboxes like you do here.
Weird. You must see a lot of parallels and a lot of differences.
Coming here, it felt… There is an aspect of Australia that is sort of nostalgic America that I've grown up on with these American TV programmes. It's a lot of American influence that is surprising, but you probably don't notice it so much because you live here. You've got Britain, American and Australia's own personality mixed in with it all. Coming from somewhere else, you can stand back.
That's kind of what the next question is about. Do you think you've got a fairly unique perspective based on being an outsider? I read today that you said you get familiarised with a place or subject and it hampers your process. That's why you went to Canberra and Maitland to explore there.
Yes, it's definitely changing because of that. I'm getting a lot more into the techniques of drawing and colouring now. But that's why I did Maitland. I wanted to go somewhere that I didn't really know well and just try and see it with fresh eyes. Initially that was a big part of what I did and I specifically was looking for things that were different to England. Looking back on it, by doing that, I'd actually picked up things that were uniquely Australian and that people took for granted.
I remember those Canberra bus stops jumped out at me. I've only been to Canberra a couple of times and they stuck with me.
That’s why I love the markets I do – I get such a thrill out of meeting the people who see my work and relate to my work. The amount of people who from, say, 1975, when those shelters first appeared – the amount of generations that have been sitting in those bus stops next door, see my drawings of these bus stops and they connect with that. They have memories. It resonates. It's hardwired into them but they don't really realise until they see it.
It's quite a challenge to find new things, but I was lucky with those. There are not many cities that have something that defines the landscape in that way. I can go to any suburb on the outskirts of Canberra and seek out a bus shelter, no matter how generic the suburb is, which is great. I’m working on a project at the moment: fifty bus shelters.
Would you say there is a quintessential Newcastle thing like the bus shelter?
What's good about Newcastle is that you've got quite a diverse range of things. You've got this great harbour, so I could do a whole series of things on boats, or surfers, or beach houses. You've got the kind of old Newcastle – like the old, slightly worn-down city part of Newcastle. When I went to Canberra I went to the information bureau and asked where the scummy areas were –
There were none?
No, they couldn't think of any.
Sounds like a nice place.
In Newcastle, you have more rundown [places] – I like that about Newcastle. I was also looking at – because I was living in London before – I was looking at Newcastle the city as opposed to this beach place. When you look at how Newcastle is promoting itself, it's very beachy, but really for us, day-to-day, it's a bit rundown. It's scummy and Newcastle – people are happy with that. I think, at least.
If Newcastle was to become like Canberra, I don't know if I would appreciate it so much.
It's a very real city. It's a city that has been here; it's the second oldest city in Australia and you want to keep that. I can't understand why people want to just make it different. I look at Canberra and, yes, it's great, but I wouldn't want that to happen here. More and more people knock down buildings to rebuild. The more people knock down stuff, the more it becomes bland, generic and could really be anywhere in the country. You really need to keep the old stuff; there isn’t a great deal of heritage in Australia, but Newcastle has got some of that.
I've kept Newcastle Productions as well; I just go by it by name. I started Newcastle Productions because I wanted to sound like a big company. Now I'm working in Canberra and still calling it Newcastle Productions. It's to do with Newcastle – it's very real. There is something about Newcastle that is not bullshitty. In the last six or seven years, I think it's gotten better and better, don't you?
Yes, I do. I find that, going anywhere else, I am always happy to come back.