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04 Jun 2019

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Vantage points

By Meg Hill

On one of the walls of the new South Melbourne “vertical” primary school in Southbank sits a massive two-by-three metre painting of Albert Park lake.

The bean-shaped lake rests next to Queens Lane, painted as if a long exposure shot of busy traffic heading to-and-from the city. To the far left are ships floating in Port Phillip Bay.

It’s a lofty piece, more than three times bigger than its creator planned.

“I originally asked for a canvas two-by-three feet, and they came back with this massive thing,” said artist Arthur “Ted” Powell.

The painting did fit in Ted’s apartment at the time, when he was living overseas, but not when he moved back to his house in South Melbourne.

It sat in storage for years until it was eventually homed at the primary school.

The lake, the sea, shore and the city in the background are painted from above.

Lots of his paintings, which over the past decade have focused largely on the development of Southbank and the city, are painted from above their subjects.

But all his sketches are drawn from the ground. Ted doesn’t use photographic reference either.

He prolifically creates panoramic sketches, absorbing visual information about an environment and the way it’s arranged.

This allows him to “put the sketches away” and paint from that memory – even from a vantage point he’s never physically occupied.

He began sketching while working overseas in advertising, rediscovering his art school self from years before. His first job, long before his career in advertising, was working part-time on the animated Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine.

“Rather than going out and eating every night I made my own little post-cards with watercolours and painted them and sent them to my family,” he said.

“That progressed into sketch books, wherever I was and if we were filming TV commercials or something, in the downtime I’d spend scribbling in sketchbooks and filling those up.”

Now, some of his panoramic sketchbooks are held by the State Library’s rare book collection, and by the City of Melbourne and Port Phillip councils.

The perceptive lens into detail of development comes not only from Ted’s knack for moving around perspectives, but the fact that he’s lived in South Melbourne, in the same house, for over 40 years – with a decade long interval to work overseas.

“When we bought it wasn’t very popular to live in South Melbourne, there was a lot of derelict buildings,” he said.

“The house we bought had a demolition order on it and we renovated it and spent a lot of time putting it back together.”

“It was built in 1884 originally and a cow shed at the back of the property ran as a dairy.”

The prolific sketching habits mean Ted can put together a show on any kind of landscape if he’s had a chance to sketch it. Two years ago, his Australia Rocks showcased volcanic rock formations in rural Victoria.

But there’s a level of critical reflection in tracing cumulative man-made development.

“I’ve always had an interest in architecture since art school, so I guess there was that distant relationship with architecture even though I get sort of frustrated with what’s happening and some buildings that aren’t very interesting,” he said.

A few years ago, Ted had a show on the Eureka Tower, which he has a “personal interest” in.

“The design of the tower is based on the Eureka Stockade. The surveyor’s measure gives you the window structure.”

“The gold glass at the top is a reference to the Eureka gold fields and the red stripe is a symbol for the blood that was lost.”

“It gives the building a whole different story. Most of them are just glass boxes.”


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