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May 28, 2024

Don’t Blink and miss Topham Mall’s historic mural

Artist Sam Brooks took a trip down memory lane with the help of AI to render a new take on historic Adelaide.

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  • Words and pictures: Helen Karakulak

As city workers and visitors pass through the Topham Mall thoroughfare, they’ll spot fresh paint depicting a snapshot of Adelaide across the years.


Don’t Blink mural
Topham Mall, between Waymouth and Currie Street

Connect with Sam Brooks:

The mural is the work of artist Sam Brooks, whose resume includes the Port Pirie Aerodrome honouring veterans and the Eudunda Silo Art.

CityMag greets Sam on the bench under his mural, with a ladder to the left pointing to the last section left to fill in.

A few passersby stop to admire his progress and have a chat, but most hurry through, faces buried in their phones hoping to soak up the last few minutes of their lunch break uninterrupted.

“I think particularly visitors to South Australia are more receptive to new and interesting things,” Sam says.

“Unfortunately, I think when someone has walked the same way to their workplace every day for 10 years, they’re almost on autopilot. But when you get a tourist who is looking for new and exciting things and everything, they’re open to it, they really appreciate it, maybe because they know they’re not going to see it again.

“If it can give people from Adelaide a sense of pride in their history, and reinforce the importance of keeping our history alive and valuing it, I think that would be the best outcome.”

A work in progress

Don’t Blink is an interpretation of data Sam researched in the City Archives and shows the CBD, particularly the Rundle Mall and Hindley Street precincts, as it was first captured, indicating how the area transformed from early settlement.

Sam says he wanted to show something “inspiring and nostalgic”.

“I ended up choosing one point in history and going through the archival footage from as early as possible to the modern day and showing how things have changed over time and how the past influences the present design styles and architecture,” he says.

Sam spent hours poring over maps and photographs in the City Archives to develop this work.

The City of Adelaide’s Art in the Street project in partnership with Guildhouse commissioned Sam to celebrate the City Archives and make them accessible to the community.

“I am really hoping it brings more interest to the archives and also maybe puts another spin on it where it’s not just about history, and learning about things that have happened in the past but also taking creative inspiration from it,” Sam says.

“In a way, to me, it’s like going to the art gallery; you’re seeing amazing things that people have done that you will never see on Instagram, you’ll never see it on Facebook or TikTok, but it’s still incredible and worth looking at and worth appreciating.”

Sam says his brief was flexible and allowed him to create as he pleased, but the vastness of the archives gave him so much to choose from.

“I really love my research, I enjoy kind of telling stories that feel important and worth telling and also uncovering little secrets,” he says.

“I love that painting can make something that is maybe a little bit boring or unknown interesting again, and fresh. It’s like a way to revive history.

“I think they knew that was my mindset, and they just said, ‘here’s the archives, you can look at whatever you want, just do your thing,’ which was tough, because there’s just hundreds of thousands of interesting things.”

After three months of research and concept development, Sam landed on the design you’ll see today.

Most of the mural captures images from the early 1900s, beginning with the earliest known image of Hindley Street as an ink drawing of passengers aboard a horse-drawn carriage in the bottom right corner.

“The street was pretty much empty then,” Sam says.

In the top right of the mural, there’s one of the earliest drawings of Adelaide as a whole from above.

“That was actually drawn from a guy who took a ride in a hot air balloon over the town and then drew everything from memory afterwards,” he says.

“It’s so accurate that you can actually recognise the buildings in it today, the ones that are still standing and they’ve got the River Torrens in there, you’ve got the old train station, and also the secret tunnel network that everyone famously talks about is actually included in there as well.”

There’s a blueprint of the 1887 Jubilee building, which Sam’s overlaid onto another building currently standing today.

A portion of Sam’s recreation of the Jubilee building with signs that reflect the Adelaide of today; parking and for lease.

The Jubilee Exhibition Building was proposed to hold celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. It was built on North Terrace and demolished in 1963. This drawing is the south elevation of the Exhibition Building by architects Withall and Wells, 1887. This picture: via State Library SA.

“I wanted to show how architecture from the past influences the modern architecture of today and also how the River Torrens from the map runs down into the light pole, showing that our designs are influenced by nature as well”.

While some placements are intentional, some are happy accidents, like the lettering of Adelaide atop the phrase ‘for beauty and performance’.

“I actually cut an old advertisement in half that was used for an early car and stuck that underneath … it’s old school, I think an Aston Martin or something but that actually happened by accident, I just threw everything down on a table and was like, that looks kind of funny how that landed and I just used it like that.”

“Adelaide – for beauty and performance” was a happy accident of laying out Sam’s mural plans.

As for how the images came to be colourised? Sam used artificial intelligence programs to help him create the mural.

“I fed a lot of them really old grainy images through the AI and told it simply to enhance what was there and it really brings a whole new level of depth and clarity to the image, and then I also use a historically accurate colourisation tool that uses AI to colourise black and white photos,” he says.

“So for the first time, we’re seeing these really grainy images in full focus and in full colour, and it’s just awesome.

“When you can use AI to bring the past into the present and really enhance our understanding of what life was like back then. I think it’s awesome and I get to show people an image of Hindley Street in full colour, in full HD, that has never ever been seen before and to me, that’s exciting.”

Sam says while he’s done many mural projects around the country, there’s something extra special about being part of the fabric of his hometown.

“There definitely is something special about making your own physical location more beautiful, like it is cool going for a drive with a friend and being like, ‘I painted that’ then you turn another street, ‘I painted that’, it makes me feel like I belong when I’m seeing my own work,” he says.

“Even though Adelaide might not be one of the biggest and most exciting cities on earth, if you still do excellent things in a small place it can have a really large impact.

“If I can, you know, hold the SA flag in terms of the arts, that would be awesome. I think we have some of the best artists in the world here and I’m just really proud of SA and I’m proud to tell people I’m from SA because it’s such a slept-on state in terms of creativity, entrepreneurship, live events.

“It would just be great to feel like I’m in the conversation of people that make Adelaide better. I don’t think I’m there yet, but I’m trying.”

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