The story behind weathered, destroyed artwork at Queen Victoria Market

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Daniel Coulson started drawing on cardboard boxes after he left The Alfred hospital’s mental health ward.

He had little money for a canvas. Nor did his new rehabilitation home in Albert Park – which he shares with 15 other Melburnians living with mental illness – have many art supplies. But while in recovery, he decided he wanted to be an artist. And a cardboard box was the best he had.

Daniel Coulson and his street art at the Queen Victoria Market on Saturday.Credit: Luis Enrique Ascui

Years later, he still uses a box canvas, and a dozen of his charcoal portraits sit silently at the Queen Victoria Market while shoppers bustle past.

“I thought it was a horrible surface to draw on because of the corrugated grooves and the imperfections,” Coulson told The Age. “But after I’d done a portrait, I really liked those imperfections.”

Coulson, who lives with autism and says he has struggled to regulate his emotions, soon started drawing his housemates, along with others who had similar health and housing challenges. He interviewed his subjects at length, recording tales of homelessness and adversity.

“They all have their stories. They all have these struggles that they deal with,” Coulson says. “Putting them on a cardboard box, and then outside to be weathered and destroyed, [only to] hold up really well, shows their strength and resilience.”

Shoppers walk past public art at the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne’s CBD.Credit: Luis Enrique Ascui

After going on public display at the Queen Victoria Market this year, Coulson says he has become fascinated with the mixed reaction his work receives. And he wants more people to stop and think.

“Negative [reactions] stand out to me more. The kicking of boxes … they like to kick the faces,” Coulson says.

“I mean, kids do it, and that doesn’t hurt as much, but when the adults do it … I guess people don’t understand why it’s there. And that sort of hurts a little bit.”

Coulson explains some think the boxes have something inside, only to open them and find a concrete slab keeping them there. Others think they’ve been mistakenly left outdoors when it starts raining. A few have even rearranged the boxes to their liking, he says.

Daniel Coulson alongside his portraiture.Credit: Luis Enrique Ascui

And despite some thoughtlessness, Coulson has been pleased to see others engage and think about the art, even on social media.

“People in the comments thought it was a really good illustration of what people go through in life with homelessness and mental health,” he says of one Reddit post. “Some of the positive feedback also was that [people] appreciate the portraiture.

“But, I like it when people like the concept behind it. That’s more meaningful to me.”

Ultimately, Coulson says he paints what he sees around him and leaves others to interpret it, using the example of Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise as his artistic template.

Artist Daniel Coulson at the Queen Victoria Market.Credit: Luis Enrique Ascui

“I’m not an expert in mental health. I’m not trying to advocate for too much,” he says.

“I’m just creating art, and hopefully as a byproduct, it creates awareness. And then it creates discussion, but also fosters empathy for these people. And shares their stories also, so people can relate to them.

“There’s no end goal. There’s no ‘thing’. I just do what an artist does. I’m just trying to paint a sunrise. And this is my sunrise, in a way.”

Support is available from Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, headspace on 1800 650 890, Head to Health on 1800 595 212 and Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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