Paint the town red
Art and class on a short break in Melbourne
It has just gone 10 on a Saturday morning and we are hard at work with boxcutters carving out plastic stencils. In a short while we’ll don face masks and aprons, vigorously shake spray cans of paint the colours of Fruit Tingles and create graffiti in a Melbourne laneway.
That’s most un-Saturday-like for me, rest assured. My small group is in the hands of Adrian Doyle and D’Arcy, artists of The Blender Studios, focus of Melbourne street art since the early 2000s and now a thriving business running workshops, conducting popular street walks and undertaking commercial commissions. Our workshop begins with a history of graffiti in suitable jive talk. Lots of things are “ace” and there are lashings of “death to capitalism”. That’s a tad ironic because we are in a reception room of the luxurious InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto, in Collins Street, and I’m hazarding a guess my fellow guests are not here to report crop yields from their outlying communes.
My group is road-testing some of the experiences that will be offered to enhance a weekend at The Rialto. I’ve been a little wary of the street-art venture, but here I am, sleeves rolled up, absorbed, enthusiastic, even a little competitive. I’m mindful too of the high prices works by street artists Keith Haring and the enigmatic Banksy attract. And just last month a piece by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for an artist record of $US57.3 million ($77m) at Christie’s in New York.
My only drawback is that I am devoid of visual arts skills. I’m not in a Vive la Revolution mood, so the inspiration for my stencil is a doodle I’ve done for a lifetime and gleaned from a free introductory lesson to a cartooning-by-correspondence course advertised on the back of the old Australasian Post. It is the face of a bald man, which unhappily has come to resemble a self-portrait in recent years.
The laneway it now adorns runs between the heritage-listed Rialto and adjacent Grollo-built Rialto Tow- ers and, I hasten to add, on the newer building’s concrete base. The Blender crew is at work on a spectacular mural that will fill the wall.
Fear not, while it was fun, I won’t be spraying my “tag” on your front fence. Before you dismiss a visit, however, you may care to know that one of the other “experiences” we road-test is a cocktail-making class. I’m now proficient at mixing a dark ’n’ stormy highball, made of dark rum and ginger beer but enlivened with honey from the hotel’s rooftop beehives. And I can shake to perfection an espresso martini.
I’m all energy for these activities because I have had the best sleep in a long time with my room’s magic mix of luxury mattress, pillows and linen (helped, too, by a night in which a cat and dog aren’t jumping on the bed demanding attention, warmth or food). We’ve enjoyed a hearty breakfast at the hotel’s Alluvial restaurant, the sort that sets you up for the day.
The Rialto, at the Southern Cross Station end of Collins Street, is a fabulous structure built to a design by William Pitt in Venetian gothic palazzo style in 1890-91, at the sunset of the Marvellous Melbourne years fuelled by the gold rush. The hotel occupies this building and the adjacent Winfield building, in sympathetic style, and linked by a glass atrium. The enclosed area, over a onetime laneway, is atmospherically lit in a restful deep blue by night.
The hotel’s general manager, Erik Stuebe, is passionate about The Rialto’s history. It was once home to the Metropolitan Board of Works, but also the Melbourne Woolbrokers Association and from 1904 the Wool Exchange Sale Room. But it also hosted lawyers’ offices, the Mapping Division and private apartments. Stuebe’s dream, with the help of local historians, is to attach a plaque to each Rialto room with a history of the businesses and people associated with it.
The hotel is honouring one of those characters, Mrs D’Ebro, in a high tea it offers. She was a Toorak society lady and wife to Charles D’Ebro, architect of the Winfield building (in truth, only the facade of this remains). The
Street art in The Rialto’s laneway and its night-lit atrium, above; Pellegrini’s Bar, below