Industry relief: The Newport Railway Workshop Project

Geoff Hogg

1 March 2024

Geoff Hogg, Cevat Yuksel, Enver Camdal, and Ardanan Esen on site at Newport Railway Station Overpass, 1994

Geoff Hogg recounts a poignant public art project to honour the treasured history of a railway workshop

The solid, concrete relief at Newport Railway station looks to me now like a simple, straightforward idea for a public artwork. Take the imposing Melbourne Road overpass, dividing the local shopping centre and use its weight and 1960s utilitarianism as the foundation for an artwork. In that way economically achieve scale and meaning through the strategic addition of new, considered elements. Not disguising, but rather re-contextualizing, and even increasing the volume of its presence.

This, however, wasn’t our starting point when we won the commission from the former Williamstown Council to plan an artwork for the station.

By 1994 when we began, Newport had changed from a pre-World War Two industrial suburb to a notable place of settlement for diverse migrant communities. It was also showing the first gentle signs of possible new affluence spreading through the inner city. As artists new to the area, we needed to understand as much as we could. Not simply about the physical character of the place, but also its makeup and evolving character as a community. After all, this was to be a site-specific artwork: that involved more than the topography. At that stage, only the design had been funded and a budget for the completed project needed to be acquired. Our job was to create a concept design that would help the Council achieve funding from the State government by presenting a ready-to-make, relevant, and achievable project.

I had been involved in public art since the 1970s and the idea of community consultation was part of our then radical agenda. By the 1990s, this concept had entered the mainstream of government-supported commissioning processes. Community engagement was part of our work method and the makeup of our planning group reflected that need. Enver Camdal and I were both artists, but our third collaborator, Fiona Tinney, was a Social Worker with years of experience. Creative and unconventional, Fiona devised a range of consultation methods from setting up a table in the local underpass to visiting people in their clubs and meeting places. On a number of occasions, we organized barbecues on the station platform to connect with early-morning commuters. Walking around the suburb, shopping and meeting people, the neighbourhood felt quiet but changing.

There was a determinedly old school pub by the station, but the shops were varied and, not far away was an unassuming but sizable mosque in what looked like an old hall. City workers packed the station in the morning, heading for white-collar jobs in town as the old manufacturing industries phased down. With this diversity, it was interesting, and a little surprising to see through our consultation, how one local theme kept coming up. The Newport Railway Workshops and the unique working-class culture they brought into being were a distinctive memory that still resonated across the community. Completed in 1889, the Workshops were a centre of heavy engineering in Victoria, constructing and servicing locomotives for the Victorian Railways, and, during World War Two, building aircraft components as part of the Australian war effort.

Employing thousands of workers in its heyday, it had its own sports clubs, and workers were credited with the invention of the game known as “Trugo” which used train components and tools as part of its play. This gave us the basis for our idea and the design flowed easily. References were everywhere and we planned the artwork as a giant broken machine with large concrete “tools” hung in the tunnels as a remembered “workshop”. We planned the project in such a way that the finished artwork could exist, even if damaged, as a modern ruin.

With the concept design completed, all we could do was wait to see if the actual artwork would be funded. At the request of the Council, we had budgeted the project in three stages allowing for funding overtime. As it turned out, only the first stage received funding.

Once this support was secured, we began the making stage of the project. Our team now expanded to include Gary Donnelly and Ardanan Esen. My colleague, Enver and also Ardanan, were of Turkish background. They both completed their training in Turkey through an educational system strongly weighted towards well-developed craft skills. With the work ahead of us we needed a lot of space to begin production and, by a stroke of good fortune and the Council’s support, we were able to establish a studio in the substantial red brick factory yard, the heart of the old railway workshops that inspired our thinking.

I had known Enver since 1985 when he arrived in Melbourne as a refugee following the military takeover in his country a few years before. From the start, I was impressed by his skills working with metal, glass, and ceramic. Enver introduced me to Ardanan, and with Gary, a recently graduated sculptor, we had an effective team.

When I first began considering this project, walking the streets of Newport, I thought migration was bound to be a part of it. As it turned out, the Railway Workshops and their legacy of a hard-won craft industry built around organization, engineering and metalwork took over our plans. Migration, however, remained a present, although not entirely apparent part of the project. The skills and collaborative work methods that Enver and Ardanan brought were in short supply in Australia, and without their involvement, a project like this couldn’t have been done in the way that it subsequently developed.

Time-honored techniques were employed. First, forming the relief elements in clay, then cast in plaster before fibre glass moulds were taken to re-caste the refined elements in concrete ready for installation. This was a laborious process and scores of pieces were made. As we began to transport them to the site for installation, I felt glad that we were only building part of the original design. The site installation phase introduced another Turkish craftsperson to the project. Cevat Yucel was a builder, and after sign-off from our engineer who was required to certify the integrity of the sculpture, Cevat worked with us to fix the newly made concrete parts to the wall.

When we had set up the site by the station for work, it looked like conventional road maintenance was happening as we signed and secured the area in the usual way. Work began by installing the concrete screwheads, placing them along each side of the wall’s existing expansion joints. As we were putting up the screwheads, they must have appeared realistic as a patron from the pub opposite asked if we were reinforcing the overpass. Through the course of the project, as what we were doing became clearer, we met an increasing number of former workers from the Railway Workshops interested in talking to us; one of whom pointed out correctly that we had the thread of the main reoccurring bolt sculpture running in the wrong direction.

The artwork, as we see it today, opened in winter, 1995. The final two stages of the project were never built but looking at the work, I think my earlier judgment was right. It is finished enough. After all, when do we know when an enterprise comes to an end?


Overview of Detroit Industry, North Wall, 1932-33, fresco by Diego Rivera. Detroit Institute of Arts; Wiki Commons

My favourite mural is Diego Rivera’s painting for Edsel Ford in Detroit. I’m impressed by the compositional structure and the activity it demonstrates. I also like the surface appearance of fresco. It’s a great craft that I studied in Mexico for a time.

About Geoff Hogg

Dr Geoff Hogg is an artist and researcher living and working in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. Practising across a range of media, he was an early contributor to the revival of contemporary public art, focusing on transcultural practice, collaboration and art and social engagement. He is the former Program Director of Post Graduate Studies in Art in Public Space at RMIT University, Melbourne and was the founding Director of the Centre for Art, Society and Transformation (CAST). Geoff Hogg is also an Honorary Professor at Xian Yang University, Xian, China, a region in which he has worked for over forty years.

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