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Canberra's iconic bus shelters: 'Pieces of street furniture that reflect a whole city'

Canberra's iconic bus shelters: 'Pieces of street furniture that reflect a whole city'

30 September 2015 Ian Warden

Discerning Canberrans already familiar with and fond of the works of Canberra-haunting, Canberra-celebrating Newcastle artist Trevor Dickinson, will prick up their ears at the news of his latest project.

Just to give a little background: Perhaps, even as you read this item, you will sip your coffee from one of Dickinson's popular ACTION bus-shelter coffee mugs. Perhaps, later, you will wash your mug and then dry it with a Dickinson tea towel festooned with his unique illustrations of quirky, uniquely Canberran things and places. 

Now, we owe to Dickinson the realisation that there is something really rather special and unique to Canberra about the squat little concrete "bunker" ACTION bus shelters. We took them for granted and hardly noticed them until Dickinson noticed them, felt a surge of fondness and admiration for them, and did a portrait of one (since then much used on T-shirts, tea towels and cards) that somehow brought out the shelters' character. Now, he explains to us, he is setting out to give many more of the shelters some deserved limelight.

"I asked ACTION buses for a map of all the concrete shelters in Canberra, from Tuggeranong to Belconnen; it turns out that there are over 500 of them! 

"My plan is to take photographs of all of them with a view to drawing the shelters that I find the most beautiful. So far, I've photographed around 100 and I'll collect more each time I visit Canberra.

"The bus shelters, with a few exceptions, are always the same. So I'm mainly looking at the context that each shelter is placed in. I spend a lot of time choosing the compositions using the surrounding telegraph poles, fences, trees, road markings or streetlights. I'm also looking to record them at different times of day and different seasons; my goal is to find something unique about each shelter I draw.
"Eventually, I want the pictures of at least 50 of them to work together as a set. Individually, the drawings are formal portraits of a bus shelter but, as I draw more, the collection will become an urban portrait of Canberra. Hopefully, I'll be ready to exhibit them all by 2017.

"When I first came to Canberra in 2012, the bus shelters stood out as a subject for drawing straight away. It became clear that this is a subject that resonates with locals; I'm sure that any Canberran who went to school by bus will have a specific shelter that means something to them. For me, it's a dream to have a piece of street furniture that reflects a whole city. I can be in the most quiet generic suburban street and still do a drawing that's recognisably Canberran. 

"If any of your readers can recommend a beautiful bus shelter, I'd love to know where it is."

Dickinson hopes that with this shelter series he will, as well as making things to sell, inadvertently provide a kind of "service". He hopes that one day this "urban portrait of Canberra" will be helpful to historians and students of the city. Because there are so many bus shelters and because they are so comprehensively sprinkled across the city, his capturing of lots of them and their suburban settings will give a lasting sense of the way we are, the way we were.

Meanwhile, in search of characterful bus shelters, he is traversing more parts of the city (sometimes on bicycle) than most of us will. He expects to visit faraway suburbs with strange-sounding names.

It is not, he testifies, that absolutely every shelter he visits fills him with inspirational thrills. He says that "because they stand out in the distance", he often gets his hopes up as he approaches one only to find that it and its surroundings are a bit average and disappointing. And yet, he enthuses, "every now and then I find a fantastic one". So, for example, someone recommended to him the shelter in Holt (pictured) enhanced by having greenery clambering over it.

But even the most nondescript of the shelters has a place in his heart and he speaks of them all with great fondness. He says some of them take on a special character at night (like the one pictured, in Deakin).

"They do change, completely. They take on a completely different look when street light shines in through their windows. They look great at night."

Time of year, too, imparts character. His picture (no room for it here today) of a shelter in Knox Street, Watson, is a wintry scene of an exposed shelter posed in front of a stand of leafless midwinter trees. The image captures beautifully the special, unique-to-Canberra character-building ordeal of waiting for a bus on one of Canberra's frostbitten Siberian mornings.

One of the attractions, for him, of the shelters is that each one suggests to him a "face" (more obvious at some angles than others) as soon as you imagine a shelter's two windows as its "eyes". So in the case of the Holt shelter, he can see (and I bet you can see it too, readers) that the vegetation gives the shelter a hairstyle, "a kind of 1980s mullet".

Dickinson's first few new bus shelter portraits will be with him at this weekend's Handmade Market at EPIC, where you will be able to commend to him the unique beauty of your local bus shelter.


21st September 2015