The Milk Bars Project started one day about 15 years or so ago in around 2001 when I was getting all nostalgic for my 1980s childhood growing up in East Geelong, Victoria. We lived in a small Victorian weatherboard cottage on a main road, McKillop Street, surrounded by old neighbours with blue rinses, concrete stalks, tyre swans, incredible veggie patches and back lanes. It was a golden childhood. In 1990 we moved to the other side of town and built a house on a block of land and this new development area was without Milk Bars, old neighbours and history. I was born in 1981 so this time in East Geelong was my 1980s childhood. When I was looking back at this time in my early 20s I took a trip to back to my childhood suburb of East Geelong. I wanted to walk down that footpath, peek through the picket fence and walk down the back lane.
One of the strongest memories I have of my childhood there were visits to the corner Milk Bar. Owned by Dave and Peggy, we simply called it ‘Dave’s’. Riding down the lane to the corner to buy 1 and 2 cent mixed lollies, a milkshake, a sausage roll or an ice cream was heaven. Mum even worked for the new owners in the late 1980s when Dave and Peggy sold up and opened a Take Away in North Geelong called the Nose Bag (named after the feed-bags horses wear) Sadly, on this trip down memory lane I discovered ‘Dave’s’ my old childhood Corner Milk Bar had long closed sometime in the late 1990s and only a rusted old tin sign for The Sun newspaper remained on the awning. For prosperity and childhood nostalgia, armed with a low-pixel digital camera I took a photograph of the building, which sparked my interest in the other Milk Bars that we walked to from home, were they still there? To my disappointment they were also closed, many with no traces of the shop to be seen except for a personal memory. This made me realise that something had happened within our suburban landscape. The Australian Milk Bar was quietly fading away without anyone noticing, an Australian icon was disappearing like an ice cream melting in the hot summers sun. I had still visited Milk Bars over the years but hadn’t really noticed a change until that day. I had always imagined Dave’s would still be there.
As an artist, designer and illustrator my work is heavily influenced by the Australia I grew up in. The 1980s with remnants of 1970s culture, an industrial town with a clash of surf culture, bright summer colours and a suburban childhood. I am always looking for an Australian visual language so old advertising on the side of a closed Milk Bar is part of that narrative. The Milk Bar represented an Australian culture that was disappearing. The Milk Bar was the physical manifestation of the cultural themes I had been exploring in my work, the Australian vernacular of the 1980s and prior. So I began a small photo archive of Milk Bars, Mixed Businesses and Corner Stores on Polaroid film a few years later, trying to preserve something that I loved and 'collecting' the last of the Milk Bars. Since then this personal project has turned into a large archive, of the signage, the fading paint on the awnings, the decaying facades of the buildings and in recent years the cultures and families that dwell within them. The result is a compelling visual diary of suburban Australia, of family business, the migrant story, of a landscape that is changing with so much rich history.
To me the Milk Bar is ‘Australia’ condensed to a corner business. It was family, community, friendly service and the migrant success story. This was the place you discussed the latest news from the street corner to the other side of the world, you bought the weekly food supplies and received life advice from the owners who knew your name. You watched the owner’s children grow up and in turn they watched yours grow with them. The Milk Bars Project to capture these fading stores began with that fateful trip to my closed childhood Milk Bar 15 years ago. The project has grown over the past 15 years to an archive of around 300+ shops with thousands of images of signage, faded awning, stickers, decals and interiors some of which I have released as signed and numbered limited edition fine art prints available on this site in the shop. And after being interviewed in a press article about the project, the greatest thing happened. The daughter of my childhood Milk Bar Dave’s got in touch after I mentioned my memories of their store and her parents Dave and Peggy Hawking, the store, I found out, was actually called Hawking’s Corner Store! This was a very special and incredible connection to make from a small personal photo project, I feel it has come full circle. It had taken me back to the 1980s and my childhood. In East Geelong on those Saturdays riding up to the Milk Bar. The project has an incredible personal depth, everyone has a memory of their own childhood Milk Bar and it engages an audience that spans multiple generations. It is a story of migration, food, small business, childhood, community, suburban life, summer, mixed lolly memories and a celebration of the hard working Australian families that ran their Milk Bars.
In 2012 I launched a website called The Island Continent, an online archive for my personal collection of Australian ephemera, media and photography and pop culture. The site gave me a platform to share my Milk Bar archive away from my day to day work as an illustrator and designer. The Milk Bars posts have become the most visited pages and along with my original small self-published book titled Milkbar: A Photographic Archive Vol 1. people really resonated with this nostalgia from their childhood. The book was acquired by The State Library of Victoria and the Melbourne Museum Library for their collections and sold out of 500 copies since its release. Since then I have spoken about Milk Bars on ABC Radio in Melbourne, 3AW with Bruce Mansfield and Philip Brady, 2SER in Sydney, interviewed about the project for The Age, Daily Telegraph, The Australian and The Weekly Review, Channel 31. This was incredible and unexpected but now . After the success of the first book I had planned to self publish 2 further volumes of my photography, but following the overwhelming public response I abandoned these humble plans for something bigger. I wanted to compile these incredible micro histories, connections I had made and tell the story of the Milk Bar. So I put out a call in January 2013 for contributions to the project. Stories, photos, memories of past and present Milk Bar owners and customers. Since then I have been in contact with a dozen families who have generously shared their memories and old family photographs. Their incredible stories only reinforced my perception that the Milk Bar was more than just a place to buy your milk and bread but held significant cultural importance about the Australian way of life and where it was going.
In 2014 I began to look outside of my home state Victoria and travelled to NSW up the Hume Highway, stopping off at all of the small regional towns on the trip to Sydney where I explored the suburbs, shooting more Milk Bars and speaking to more owners. The photographs were featured that year on 500 banners across Sydney for City of Sydney's Art & About Festival and the stories and connections continued. Channel 9’s The Today Show featured the photography and the project, inviting viewers to share their old photographs and memories of Milk Bar. Their post on Facebook that day received 2,600 likes and 700 comments from viewers sharing their Milk bar memories and photographs, which they also featured on the show that morning. And as part of the festival I spoke at a panel discussing Milk Bars at Sydney’s Customs House Library alongside Australia's first and foremost Greek Cafe and Milk Bar historian Leonard Janiszewski, who along with his research colleague, documentary photographer Effy Alexakis, has been researching the birth of the Milk Bar and Greek Cafe's since 1981. In 2015 I spoke at The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra about the project and my archive and art at the 8th Print Symposium conference.