Two centuries ago, Queanbeyan’s main street was a din of clopping hooves, sweeping cloaks, and conversation about bushrangers, but rising above it all, was the clang of metal on metal.
From as early as 1877, a number of blacksmiths and wheelwrights set up shop on Monaro Street to shoe horses, repair wagon wheels, and perform all manner of other metal-related work.
And now in 2022, the old-world experience is being reimagined in paint.
Four artists are on scissor lifts in Blacksmiths Lane, a laneway connecting Monaro Street to the car parks and businesses that lie behind it.
Renowned mural artist Al Stark is one of them, and he started onsite on 6 July, painting the walls with his interpretation of the art of blacksmithing.
Al grew up in Melbourne as “one of those kids who was born drawing”. Over the years, he has decorated a number of cities with murals, sculptures, leather tattooing, interior space design and more. Several of his works have even made it into the National Gallery of Australia here in Canberra.
“It’s how I make sense of the world,” he says.
“I don’t really do literal representations of things – mine are more representing the feeling those things evoke.”
For Blacksmiths Lane, this takes the form of geometric shapes of muted, earthy coloured tones to represent the metal and black patterns over the top, in reference to “the intricate metal brackets on old heritage buildings”.
It’s not as simple as a blank canvas, however.
“Because the laneway is so narrow, there’s no point where you get to stand back and take it all in, so it needed to be an artwork people can walk through,” Al says.
“It’s also quite dingy, so I’ve chosen blues to try to bring the beautiful skyscape in.”
Blacksmiths Lane is one of two laneways along Monaro Street, the other being No Name Lane.
Yanni Pounartzis, the artist behind Canberra’s ill-fated Big Swoop magpie sculpture, began mural work on No Name Lane in May.
The NSW Government is funding both through the Your High Street grant program, which launched in November 2020. This is to support councils across NSW to make permanent improvements to the amenity and functionality of their main streets.
Grants of up to $1 million were available for councils, and Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council (QPRC) applied.
Award-winning local artists Suzie Bleach and Andy Townsend will also be installing an art light wall in Blacksmiths Lane. The design will feature a laser cut steel plate with artist-drawn imagery relating to the blacksmith era. The light is also said to provide greater safety.
Another local artist, Michael Carruthers, has created two hand-forged signs that will be installed at each of the laneways’ entries. His in-ground sign will be installed when the laneway’s paving begins and the hanging sign will be the project’s final installation in mid-July.
The lane’s design also features new landscaping elements including seating, trees and upgrades to the current catenary lighting.
All of the artists were contacted through Creative Roads, a group that takes large-scale art commissions.
Member for Monaro Nichole Overall said the Your High Street program was designed to help local businesses recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and improve people’s safety and experience in public spaces.
“In Queanbeyan, the many laneways help the pedestrian connectivity from one part of the CBD to another,” Mrs Overall said.
“Our main street is more than just a thoroughfare. It is a place where people can gather, socialise, dine and do business.”
The laneways form the first part of QPRC’s planned redevelopment of Monaro Street, which will include a raft of changes to make the main road safer and prettier.
The project is likely to include the widening of footpaths, new paving, additional plantings and lighting, and fresh street furniture. The road surface will be replaced and some underground infrastructure updated.