Christopher Zanko

Disappearing residential architecture in the wake of development and gentrification has inspired Illawarra artist Christopher Zanko to remember local migrant and working class histories. His latest work represents a suburban mid-twentieth century aesthetic that is often overlooked.

In his small studio located in a garage on the Illawarra escarpment, Christopher Zanko has temporarily set aside his wood-cut tools and brushes. His exhibition at The Egg & Dart, Sweet Misgivings, is on soon and final preparations are underway. Large- and small-scale artworks are propped against or hanging on the white walls, ready for photographing.

Among them is Lake Illawarra Longing, 2021, one of Zanko’s larger wood relief carvings that captures in excruciating detail a triple-fronted house with creamy white cladding and terracotta-red roof tiles. Green striped awnings, immaculate garden beds, and a concrete kangaroo decorating the lawn complete the picture. If this house was a real estate listing, it might be described as a renovator’s dream, or a development opportunity. But in Zanko’s hands, he returns to the residence a precision, even beauty, we might have otherwise driven straight past on our way further down the coast. Lake Illawarra Longing recalls the past in all its mid-twentieth century mundanity without belittling it. Even its title identifies the nostalgic undertones evident across Zanko’s latest body of work.

“A lot of these places around me, in my immediate community, are disappearing,” he explains. “It is redefining what I associated with visually as I grew up.” Zanko is referring to life in the Illawarra, where he has always lived; he grew up in a house on the same Illawarra escarpment where he now lives and studied painting at the University of Wollongong. His parents both migrated to Australia, meeting first in Melbourne. Zanko’s mother grew up in Singapore and moved to Australia in the 1960s, where she worked as a textile designer. His father left the UK in the 1980s, where his family had resettled after the Second World War, part of the Polish and Belarusian diasporas that fled Nazi occupation.

His own family’s history of migration and resettlement deeply informs Zanko’s practice, influencing his observations of multicultural communities on the South Coast. Through careful articulations of the local residential architecture, he reveals the different ways people create a sense of home and culture in a new place. This local architecture has always drawn him in, he says. “By listening to stories and histories about the place that I’ve grown up in . . . when I started making art it felt like a natural pull to explore these themes through the vernacular architecture around the area.”

Compared to earlier residential architecture styles in Australian cities – old colonial homesteads, intricate Victorian terraces, Edwardian mansions, and later, the gabled Bungalows of the inter-war period – the houses Zanko is most interested in were born out of necessity and affordability.

During the post-war period (1940-1960) Sydney boomed and outlying districts like Wollongong became hubs of coal mining and steelworks. To put a number on it, steel production in nearby Port Kembla once employed approximately 22,000 people, many of them newly arrived immigrants who worked and lived in the Illawarra. Today this number is closer to 3,000 local employees. “At one point, when the steelworks were at peak employing capacity, there were seventy different languages spoken there,” says Zanko. New houses were built quickly and cheaply, austere and uniform in style, to meet housing demand.

Zanko is fascinated by the working class and migrant history of this residential architecture; the tiny fibro cottages and triple-fronted, typically brick veneer, homes that sprung up all over Sydney and along the coast post-war. These were the homes many baby boomers grew up in, symbols of stability and affordability during the 1950s when building materials were scarce and asbestos was a cheap – unknowingly cancerous – alternative.

Zanko’s work intimates an understanding of broad social and economic forces and how these intersect with aesthetics. This deepens his work beyond the surface of facades and streetscapes. Through careful observation and understanding it reflects specific suburban histories, with a particular focus on the Illawarra. This is his way of making sense of the cultural changes in his local area, and more broadly Australia, as well as his own family history. “The remnants of what was happening in mid-twentieth century Australia is still visible to a large degree in pockets of the country as we move further into this century. For myself, this is the legacy of coal mining and steel making in the Illawarra,” he says.

When Zanko selects a house, it’s usually spontaneous, inspired by the light and shade of the composition at the time. “It might just be a particular orientation of the sun on that day, or time of year, that casts shadows from awnings or the eaves on the roof of the house,” he says. Once the initial photograph is taken and edited, he transfers it onto the woodblock and maps out the repeat pattern motifs he later uses throughout the carving and painting process. The carving alone can take fifty to eighty hours, depending on the size of the work, and he finds a meditative practice in the repetition, where “the intersection of process/technique and subject matter keep playing tug of war.”

He likes the rigidity of the wood block and the amount of detail he can add. Painting comes later, which gives the work its painterly quality, enhanced by the sudden contrast of black as it is rolled across the relief. Form, line, and texture materialise quickly at this stage of the process, influenced equally by Japanese woodblock printmaking, particularly artist Utagawa Hiroshige, and twentieth century Australian modernists like Margaret Preston and Thea Proctor. The work of American woodblock artist William S. Rice, whose work intersects with both European and Japanese printmaking, has also had an impact on Zanko’s style, encouraging him to combine different traditions and experiment with line work and colour. This includes new studies of smaller detailed artworks, such as potted plants in concrete urns, recalling a kitsch pop art aesthetic reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein or Howard Arkley. Initially always drawn to the form of the house, Zanko’s work also celebrates the more intimate details of human habitation. “I look at how individuals make these places their own,” he says. “How they might have different plants, or the way they have curated their gardens, how they represent their culture.”

The mid-twentieth century suburban world that Zanko captures is disappearing. Without the iconic status of architecture from this era, these homes are the first to be pulled down; the influence of gentrification and development that has accelerated in recent years across coastal towns in New South Wales. As a local artist with strong connections to the community, Zanko is channelling these changes through his work. “I’m thankful that I’ve been able to find a way to process this and understand and appreciate these places while they are still here and the history and contexts of the people that made the suburbs what they are – or I guess what they were,” Zanko says.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 57 

Daily Dilemmas 
7 – 27 February 2024 
Edwina Corlette,  Brisbane 

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