Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Newcastle Herald
Newcastle Herald

Newcastle artist Trevor Weekes and his incredible flights of fantasy

Keen imagination: Trevor Weekes in his Sandgate studio where he creates and stores a trillion images and items. Picture: Marina Neil

It's hard to settle your eyes on any one thing in the Newcastle warehouse that Trevor Weekes has redefined as a studio. The Mickey Mouse memorabilia you can't miss, it is overboard prolific.

But there is so much in so many fields of collectability crammed into the huge space, individual elements elude the eye. He welcomes me to have a seat in the middle of it all, next to the desk where he draws and writes. Where stories come to life.

Weekes is a mesmerising story-spinner. When he speaks it's like he's disappeared into the tale, offering you a portal to its lifelikeness.

Suddenly the surroundings make sense as he starts to explain his work, including creating a new bird species, teaching chickens to fly and digging up a winged elephant.

I don't remember falling into a rabbit hole but a few times I meet the discombobulating realisation that I'm not sure if Weekes is in fiction or factual mode.

"What you're experiencing is not unusual," he says.

Unsurprisingly, Weekes has become used to people responding in various states of belief/disbelief.

Keen collector: Trevor Weekes with some of his collection of Mickey Mouse memorabilia. Picture: Marina Neil

His studio is a place where such thinking should be suspended if you want to know the real story.

While his artwork, and his books, take flights of fantasy to the extreme "there's always a truth behind it," says Steve Lopes, who is curating the retrospective to be held this June at Stella Downer Fine Art in Waterloo.

"Those blurred lines make great art, there's a level of magic," Lopes says. "Nowadays we're very prescriptive in what we understand as culture.

"Trevor's always tried to push those boundaries."

The exhibition stretches from the 1970s to recent works, and encompasses more than the works he is best known for over years of exhibiting with major commercial galleries including Macquarie Galleries and (former) art dealer Rex Irwin.

Lopes has catalogued previously unexhibited delicate drawings of wildlife that he found in Weekes' studio, and also a painting of a cat draped quite regally in a cape.

The cat is from a series Weekes exhibited last year at the Manning Regional Art Gallery, showing the animals in partially human context. The meaning within the detail of these perfectly realised images takes time to absorb, some look just like cats but have human eyes.

Wildly original: Trevor Weekes has always invented creatures, particularly birds.

It's hard to tell where the story I'm to tell of Weekes' stories should begin, Dear Reader, so let's set out from somewhere in the middle.

This is a tale about an elephant. Two elephants actually. Asian circus elephants. But only one has wings. Not very large wings either. When Weekes told me he'd dug up a winged elephant, I was imagining a wing-span more able to handle a load.

He didn't really excavate a winged elephant. Well, actually he did. In fact, he dug up that elephant twice.

It was part of a "multi-dimensional exploration" set off when Weekes was the first to undertake a Fine Arts PhD at the University of Newcastle. He was given a scientific sounding outline to guide his research and study.

"I didn't quite know what that all meant," Weekes says.

So he used his imagination.

The whole PhD became about showing how artists explore a topic via creativity, non-predefined.

He'd heard a story about two circus elephants killed in a road accident somewhere near Moree. That was enough to set Weekes off on quite an adventure.

"I thought 'wouldn't that be fascinating to dig up an elephant and resurrect it'," he says.

He went in search of the grave, taking his family along "so I looked vaguely normal".

"I took the elephant as the inspiration and then I produced different things based around the elephant."

That included employing his musical skills (Weekes is a former drummer known about the Newcastle scene) to make a soundtrack of "the life of an elephant from dawn to dusk" including elephants singing to each other over vast distances "like a choir". He also wrote music about stampeding and poaching.

The heart of the notion: "You get the non-believers who actually get cranky because they think you're trying to pull the wool over their eyes, but I'm just trying to invite them in," Weekes says. Picture: Marina Neil

He then wrote 10 short stories, published as The Elephant Chronicles.

And he made sculpture, creating a realistic looking elephant tusk, but with matches protruding from the end representing its severing. This is a comment on disconcerting objects, such as umbrella stands made out of elephant's feet, that he saw while travelling in Africa.

Weekes, and his family, got to the place where the two circus elephants had died. A local farmer's son had used farm machinery to dig a hole and bury them.

There was some explanation required, and correct channels to clear, before an excavation could occur.

Weekes secured the remains, took them to the property he then lived at outside Wollombi and sculpted some wing bones. He then reburied the remains, with the faux wing bones, and filmed their "discovery".

"People were saying 'that's incredible that you found that elephant with the wings'," Weekes says.

"I wanted to make the point that artists take something that inspires them and they can do anything." In doing so, he was exposing the kernal of creativity, and illuminating human belief systems.

Weekes first realised the reality-bending impact of his art when he made a life-scale sculpture of decaying human remains in a leather flying helmet with goggles, displayed alongside an aeroplane structure. He invented a story to go with the sculpture.

The New Bird: Based on ideas formed in a 180,000-word fictional manuscript Trevor Weekes hand-penned while sitting at a Merewether café on weekend mornings.

"A woman said 'that stinks, that's revolting'," he says.

Weekes had similar experiences when he created an exhibition around a fictional female adventurer based on Charles Darwin, including a handmade journal of her travels. "People were saying 'wasn't she such an amazing woman'."

"I thought 'isn't that interesting?', how people want to believe. That drove me on a little bit, I started doing these fantasy stories that are ridiculous but people believe them.

"The thing is you're torn between how far you go, if people believe it I feel like I can't tell them it's not real," Weekes says. It'd "spoil the fun".

Instead, he gives "some little clue that it's not real".

"You get the non-believers who actually get cranky because they think you're trying to pull the wool over their eyes, but I'm just trying to invite them in," he says.

"The good thing is it makes people think."

Weekes recently completed a graphic novel about, the late, Australian artist Martin Sharp saving Luna Park from developers by rocketing the landmark into space and fighting off space pirates.

Sharp was involved in restorations of the funpark in the 1970s, before the tragic ghost train fire, and he led protests to protect the harbourside icon from highrise apartments developers.

"This is really a way of talking about business and money and greed," Weekes says. "There's a lot of symbolism."

The idea seeded in 1985. Weekes had created a work featuring Luna Park. Martin Sharp wanted to acquire it, the barter involved a signed Tiny Tim album and a memorable talk about the history of the landmark.

All of Weekes' books have been a long-time in the making.

He builds characters up using handmade models, so he can draw them from different angles, creating thick visual reference diaries.

One book, The New Bird, was based on ideas formed in a 180,000-word fictional manuscript he hand-penned while sitting at a Merewether café on weekend mornings.

Weekes draughtsmanship in that book channels Leonardo Da Vinci (as does a yet to be released title The Da Vinci Toad).

What would it be like to one day wake up and realise something was missing - there were no birds in the sky. "A world that was once populated with one of nature's true marvels is now a world where these creatures no longer exist and their absence is a sore reminder of how nature can be served a savage blow at the hands of humans," Weekes wrote.

In response, a man creates a genetically engineered bird called Leonardo and "his friends encourage him to announce it to the world". Leonardo clones became so popular they are but fashion accessories.

"The birds have got this yearning to be free, they die because they're just showpieces," Weekes says.

He also wrote and illustrated a title about a pig that flies with Da Vinci-style apparatus, and will later this year publish a boxed-set of his writings on chickens and their flight endeavours. It's an enduring theme.

Weekes grew up on the land, around Orange, then lived and worked in Sydney (where he taught art, Steve Lopes was one of his students) before moving to Wollombi and onto Newcastle. He also taught at Newcastle University.

Walt Disney sparked his interest in art, and he has been collecting Mickey Mouse since he was 12 years old.

"Actually, I think it was because of Disney that I do what I do," he says.

"There's something spiritual, I want to have something to believe in, but you can't say 'Walt Disney'.

"I think doing this is my release, you can escape."

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.