24 September 2017

Stobie Poles with Adelaide Matt!

A Stobie pole is a slab of concrete sandwiched by steel joists to lift up power lines and cables in South Australia. They were invented in 1924 by James Cyril Stobie, an engineer at the Adelaide Electric Supply Company. Much like telephone poles in the United States, these Stobie poles were commonplace parts of the landscape, and largely plain and obtuse. They were built using materials easy to find and termite resistant.

My new Instagram friend Matt has been photographing painted Stobie poles and artwork featuring Stobie poles, and posting these images on his IG feed @carringbush69. I found this fascination with these poles very interesting and wanted to know more . . . I felt like these poles were telling a story, perhaps even contributing to South Australian heritage that I knew nothing about.

With a bit of a twist on the usual interviews that I do with specialist teachers and art educators, I have decided to interview Adelaide Matt about these painted structures.

To start things off, the image above is from his most recent post--featuring a Stobie pole mosaic around the base of a palm tree. This is only one side of the pot. While he posted both sides of the pot, I am interested in the activity happening on this side of the pot. You can see the other side of the pot here.

I can't quite tell, but it looks to me like a person (blonde hair, blue shirt) is either admiring the art of the Stobie pole or in the process of painting it. Under Matt's post, he says, " This is the other side of the mosaic pot I featured recently. It features a portrait of @mr.bowden (he's the one in blue) from @hindmarshgreening. They are responsible for a lot of the art and greening in the inner West."

I loved that the Stobie pole art was becoming art itself, through the mosaic pot . . . So meta.

Our conversation happened over several emails and by exchanging images using Google drive and Dropbox. I've pieced it together here, organically and how it took place. The bold questions are my original questions, and the additional text is the conversation as it unfolded. Lots of candor and enthusiasm.

So without further ado, I present Adelaide Matt in his own words. *Oh, and the fabulous drawing below and on the right is by @malpal987654321. (Her IG feed is magic.) All additional images provided by @carringbush69. Enjoy!


LB: What is your name and what do you do for a living?

MJ: My name is Matt Jorgensen and I work as a horticulturist in the local government (think of the television show Parks and Rec).

LB: This is the greatest thing I’ve ever read . . . Parks and Rec is my favorite show. While I was living in Singapore, I watched the entire series over and over and over again. Does this mean that you write grants for park projects or submit contracts for beautification projects? Tell me more about horticulture work. Do you really get to do much gardening? Or is it mostly about projects, like I mentioned above . . .

MJ: I manage horticultural and conservation maintenance teams. It’s quite a diverse mix and quite a busy job. I don’t get to do much hands-on stuff at work so I have to get my fix in my home garden.

LB: Where are you from? Where are you currently located?

MJ: I grew up in a suburb called Ingle Farm on the northern side of the city of Adelaide, South Australia and I now live in West Croydon which is on the western side of the city.

LB: Adelaide had the most amazing weather while I was there! The sky was the bluest I had ever seen!

LB: When did you start taking pictures of Stobies?

MJ: I have always admired Stobie art but didn’t start taking pictures until August 2016 and then decided to start posting them on Instagram in February 2017.

LB: What kind of response have you gotten since doing this?

MJ: Overall it’s been very positive and enriched my life. I’ve never met anyone who’s opposed to Stobie art.

LB: I think I started following you because I found you through someone else--@foodbabysoul, maybe?

MJ: Yes, she is a very interesting person. We’ve had a few chats and I love what she does. I think I followed you because you commented on something of her's . . .  

LB: Have you met other people from around the world through your social media presence?

MJ: I've interacted with heaps of people from across the world, as well as my hometown of Adelaide. There’s also been a few people at work that have started following me that hadn’t seen this side of me before.

LB: Why Stobie poles?

MJ: They are everywhere, accessible, functional, and--most importantly--beautiful! I walk and ride around my neighbourhood to keep mentally and physically healthy. I always vary my routes so I keep things interesting . . . Keeping an eye on people’s gardens, home renovations, public art, and changes in the seasons. There is only so much exploring you can do, before you have walked every street and seen everything. My neighbourhood has more Stobie art than most and one day while out walking, I decided to start taking pictures to give myself another interest and encouragement to keep active. I hadn’t really used Instagram before, but it seemed like the perfect place to show other people what’s out there as well.

LB: Is painting a Stobie pole legal, or is it considered graffiti? Or is it just an acceptable thing in your community?

MJ: Painting Stobies is legal as long as you get permission from the power company and your local council. There are some restrictions around advertising, political messaging, and offensive material but most people aren’t doing it for that reason anyway. Personally I think it is a bit over regulated and they should just let it happen as it’s not hard to paint over if it offends.

LB: I know that Adelaide has an amazing fringe festival. So maybe it’s just a super creative place??! 

MJ: Adelaide is awesome. It is known as the festival state and people come from all over the world to attend our major arts and cultural festivals. We have a small population compared to a lot of other major cities so it is easy to get around and the air is clean. We have to be creative to stay competitive and that includes the arts. The best way to describe Adelaide is laid back.

*Did you know that Adelaide is Austin's sister city? Thank you to @wellbalancedwomen for this fun fact!!

LB: How important is art to your life?

MJ: I love art and in particular community-initiated art. It took me a while to realise that you don’t have to be particularly talented to get the benefits of creating art and anyone can get out there and beautify their public spaces! If people replaced television with art, the world would be a much better place.

LB: Love that last statement! I haven’t had a television in ten years!! I stream things if I feel like watching a movie or a television show. I have a MA in Community Arts, which is why I was so drawn to you documenting Stobies. Some people in my field think that all art is political. Do you consider the Stobie art as political? If so what do you think it references/what’s the statement . . . Or, is it merely beautification? Or maybe it depends on the art?

MJ: I think most of it is beautification. I wish people were allowed to be political as long as they were respectful. It’s a great medium to express a point of view.

LB: Do you consider the Stobie images your artwork or documentation or both?

MJ: I think of it as documenting other people’s art. I believe that good photography is an art. And there are some great photographers out there, but I’m not one of them. My skills and attention to detail leave a bit to be desired. I do hope the artists that know about the Instagram feed get enjoyment from the positive comments their art attracts.

LB: Have you ever spoken to the people who have painted the poles you have photographed? Do they ever reach out to you?

MJ: Some have. Not many though. I have approached some local people that I know who paint and it is always a positive interaction.

LB: Do you make artwork in addition to the images you share on IG? If so, tell us more!

MJ: Yes! I have a very active imagination and I find that if I don’t keep my mind focussed on creating things then it has a tendency to get me in trouble. I’m always in the garden so that’s where a lot of the things I create end up . . . There’s a mixture of sculptures and other interesting creations. I also love to intertwine wordplay and riddles into the garden. 

Garden design is a form of art and I think people should create gardens that express their personality, make them unique, and avoid copying your neighbour or the latest trend.

While I’m on my [gardening] soapbox, there is no reason why a front fence should be any higher than waist height. How will you get to know and look out for your neighbours, if you can’t see each other?

On top of all that I run a small art gallery on the Stobie pole in front of my property which has housed some of my art plus contributions from professional and amateur artists who live in the area.

*Below and left, is my work in Matt's Stobie pole gallery in front of his house. It was exciting to me to have work featured in Adelaide, in the community and on the street. You can see the original post about this work here.

LB: What is the process behind your IG feed?

MJ: I use a Samsung Galaxy S5 and I basically turn the camera on and take a photo. The sun can be my best friend or worst enemy, depending on the aspect of the pole. I often have to return to take pictures when it is overcast or the sun is in the right spot in the sky. I have figured out the best distance and angles so they can be cropped in Instagram effectively. I have at least 100 poles in my [photo image] gallery at any given time to choose from. I get up at 6am most days and before I do anything else I go into my gallery and choose whichever pole takes my fancy for the day. I do try to vary the styles, age, and location a bit. There are [some] really good poles and some quite basic too so I try and show all types.

LB: Do people send you recommendations for where to take pictures or do you just happen upon painted stobies randomly?

MJ: People will often send me locations to search, which I really love! And it inspires me to go exploring in places I wouldn’t normally go. Some people have also sent me pics they have taken but most of the time I post my own pictures. I’m lucky to live in an area that has more painted Stobies than most and there are some very active community groups who are always painting more: @gorilla_art_kilkenny and @croydon_paint_bank in particular. I also love finding them when I’m not looking . . . That’s a real treat.

LB: This is really interesting that there is a Stobie pole community. I am trying to think of something similar in the US--maybe electric boxes or newspaper boxes? Have you been to the US?

MJ: No, I have dreams of walking the Pacific Crest Trail at some stage and also would like to see New Orleans. 

LB: What’s your take on a similar painted fascination? I am going to link to the blogpost I sent you at the end of this post. Did you ever email the writer? Was there a response?

MJ: Yes and no response so far. All art is good. The less it is regulated, the better. Although I do understand that it is important for all levels of government to fund and support art.

LB: Show us your top 5 favorite painted stobie poles, and tell us why they're your favorite.

MJ: This is a tough one. There are so many good poles that I left off the list as my favourites change from day to day . . . 

1. Women are my favourite people, especially when they’re green! I love it when the Stobie is used to show a slither of a larger picture and this one does it as well as any I’ve seen.

2. This one is exquisite: the colour blending into the rust, the aged look!!! Best viewed when the sun is setting in the west.

3. My favourite animal of all time is the Murray Magpie and my favourite stobie Magpie so far is this one. Painted by passionate local artist and stobie pole enthusiast, @phantasmagoria_design

4. This one is by local artist @jackiereichstein_art . She is very talented and I love the backdrop.

5. Most Stobies are 90 degrees to the road but occasionally they’re parallel like this one. I love the vivid colours of this pole. The purple is divine but I also love the contrast to the street art in the background.

LB: Do you think Stobie pole art is important to your town’s cultural history? If so, why?

MJ: South Australia is famous for the Flinders Ranges, Kangaroo Island, producing world class wine . . . It’s known as the festival state and Lonely Planet recently named it the 5th best destination in the world for 2017 . . . However, they all pale in comparison to the magnificent painted Stobie pole. Stobies are unique already, and painting them adds an extra layer of quirkiness. When people come to South Australia from other Australian States or from overseas, they fall in love with the poles known as Stobies.

LB: Do you think Stobie pole art is a form of storytelling?

MJ: For sure. They are a snapshot of the lives of the people who lived near the pole and thought it was a good idea to get out and personalise it. It’s kind of like cave painting. In a hundred years time, people will look at some of the poles and they will be revered. Some show the history of the area, someone’s favourite animal, their cultural heritage or even their favourite sports team . . . One pole close to me depicts characters from the TV show South Park and I can imagine some teenage kid painting it back in the late nineties and now they show their kids when they visit their parents who still live there.

LB: What is the furthest you’ve traveled to take a picture of a pole?

MJ: The Clare Valley is about 140km north of Adelaide and it’s famous for wine. The local primary school is surrounded by painted stobie poles which have a distinct Aboriginal culture and local flora flavour.

LB: Have you ever received pictures of poles from other people? If so, what is the story?

MJ: I’ve had a couple of people send me pictures of poles or post their own pics and tag me. Lots of locals love Stobies and post as well. The pic below was sent by @catmagic._ who was visiting the lovely seaside town of Goolwa at the time. We have never met and probably won’t, but we share an interest in Stobie art and that’s one of the good things about social media.

LB: How has your world changed by documenting and taking notice of Stobie poles? I would imagine that you are keenly aware of your surroundings on a daily basis.

MJ: I’m a pretty inquisitive type anyway, but I am much more attuned to Stobie poles now than I used to be. Sometimes I might spot one down a side street and then spend the next half hour searching for more in the same location. Sometimes I will explore for an hour in a suburb and not find anything, and I walk away wondering why not?

LB: Do you hear any good stories while you are out and about taking pictures? I would think that you would meet a lot of people, or people might come up to you and ask you about what you are doing.

MJ: I get some funny looks sometimes and people will ask what I’m up to, which leads to some great conversations. Occasionally I will ask someone standing in their front yard if they know of any painted poles in their area which is a great way to meet people and learn a bit.

LB: Tell us your best story that you’ve heard while out photographing.

MJ: Local community artist Lara and her granddaughter Mia recently painted a pole together near the railway line down the road from me. I managed to get a pic of them painting together and was able to return a couple of weeks later to document the finished work. I love the fact that a family can share something like that . .. It’s almost like a totem pole. I love the fact that they can drive or walk past that pole for years to come and remember the time spent together.

LB: Do you host any large events that feature your images so that the community can see what you are doing? (Thinking art shows or something like that . . . ) If so, how was the response? What about a book of images? Anything like that in the works, or do you consider this more of a hobby?

MJ: I think just a hobby for now. My life is pretty busy already, but who knows in the future?

LB: What is your most favourite part of documenting Stobie poles?

MJ: Exploring would have to be my favourite part. I’m pretty passionate about the Stobie art but I also love older style letterboxes (see below), old garden statues, mid-century house plaques and other people’s front yards.

LB: If we asked you when you were five what you wanted to be when you grew up, what would you say?

MJ: As far back as I can remember I have always wanted to be a gardener, and it is the only type of work I have ever done . . . Hopefully it will stay that way forever. There was a brief stage where I thought about modeling, but I think that ship has sailed. George Clooney I am not.

LB: In keeping with particular questions I ask everyone that I interview, what is your favourite song right now . . .

MJ: Kalgoorlie by The Peep Tempel, a very Australian song.

LB: Last and final question . . . What is the greatest thing that has happened to you in the past week? This answer can be as simple as having the best cup of coffee to winning a million bucks. Whatever suits you.

MJ: My youngest daughter Matilda who is nearly 15 drew me a picture for Father's Day (see below). 

*Stars with glitter on them . . . This 15 year old knows what's up!!

* * *
I keep thinking about this interview, trying to compare it to things that I see happening here. I sent Matt an article that I saw on one of my favorite art blogs, Glasstire. What do you think of art happening in communities on common items? Newspaper boxes, trash receptacles, bike racks, light poles? A HUGE thank you to Matt for his participation in this interview!! Please leave questions and comments for Adelaide Matt in the comments section below.

Up next? Summer teaching in China, week number two.

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