One of the many works of Wonthaggi artist Dennis Leversha, it’s a tribute to the Italian vegetable growers who tackled the hill country where only the brave or foolhardy go. Should you approach from the Loch side of the town you would have seen, or maybe missed, additional examples of Dennis's work.
More of his art adorns the local library wall and flows over into the main street. The three-dimensional mural of the timber yard and joinery works on the front of the pizza shop prompted a resident in need of a carpenter to call a neighbouring shop for the phone number. Of course no such joinery business exists.
Then there is the full-wall mural on the west facing wall of the Caltex garage that captures the scene of fire that damaged the Middle Hotel, now thankfully restored.
As we sit at Dennis’s kitchen table, I’m overwhelmed by the volume of his work as he produces photo upon photo of his Gippsland murals. One of my favourites (I am told by Dennis it is his first mural, painted in 1995) is on the Bullock Dray Cafe at Mirboo North where the rear end of an actual timber-loaded dray appears to be drawn by a team of bullocks down into the valley of the illustrated countryside.
Just up the road you would have trouble missing the crop-duster Tiger Moth where Dennis affixed timber to the brick wall “canvas” to accommodate wing tips that extend above the painting. “The tips hide the skylight of the roof of the building behind but as you drive by you can't see that until you’re level, by which time you should be watching the road,” he says with a grin.
It started back in 1962 when Dennis took up a studentship offer at RMIT, a four-year diploma course which came with a living allowance of £15 a week ($30) and a commitment to teach in the discipline for the following two years. Later, while cadging a lift along Toorak Road, he and a fellow art student had a chance meeting with the then musical director of the Australian Ballet, which led to employment with the Princess Theatre painting backdrop scenery for the stage. It was work on a huge scale, two massive paint frames where the working platforms were electronically elevated up or down by the painter as the composition of the scene developed.
One of the problems was it did not allow the artist to step back and gauge the perspective of his work without putting his life in danger. Adjustments to scale and depth were often required when the completed work was in place and viewed by the artist from the distance of the dress circle.
Much of his work has required extensive research to assure authenticity. His largest mural, at Yarram, is some 45 metres long by three metres high and took 30 days to complete. Its centrepiece displays the ill-fated paddle steamer Clonmel, which grounded on a sandbank in 1841 just south of what is today Port Albert. It also depicts an FE2b, a very early aircraft. When Dennis contacted the RAAF Museum at Point Cook to check on the insignia of the plane he was told there wasn't one as the aircraft predated the Air Force.
Are there any regrets knowing that this mostly external work will one day weather and fade away? “Not really. That's inevitable and I don't shed any tears over it. I've use top-quality external enamel acrylic on all the work but it can't last forever. What really surprises me is the almost total lack of vandalism." The one incident was the scratching of a declaration of love on a horse’s backside on the extensive mural at Dumbalk, which was easily repaired.
But there are losses, some caused by demolition, others by overbuilding. The mural of the last train out of Mirboo North was covered when they built the police station there. And should you pull down the back wall of the Rainbow Palace Chinese restaurant in Korumburra you would find another historical train scene only inches away.
One of the Wonthaggi works has also been lost in a sense. The multi-panel work in the Wonthaggi Workmen’s Club covering the history of the Wonthaggi coal mine was largely removed from the public eye when the entrance to the club was relocated after the work was completed. But you can find it if you take the trouble to look.
These days, Dennis has cast aside the extension ladders, the scaffolding and cherrypicker to return to the more conventional canvas, palette and easel, with his paintings highly prized and sought after.
He is also very involved in the Wonthaggi Historical Society and a major force in the Bass Coast Artists Society giving generously of his time to the community.
When I ask if there are one or two n's in Dennis he replies, “Two – I take all I can get”. Nothing could be further from the truth about the man.