History of Australian
the greatest acknowledgement is due to the people I did not meet; the photographers,
diarists, artists, commentators, craftsmen of yesteryear who, in letters, literature
and art/craft works, left an enduring, human account of how people wrested life
from a harsh land and came to love it." Murray Walker
Along with opal jewellery and red wine, craft is one of the few examples of high culture in Australia. It is refined in style, highly skilled in the production process and unique to Australia.
Perhaps the success of the culture can be attributed to environmental influences. Because Australia is a low density country, a large number of Australians have space for pottery kilns, wielders, band-saws, wood-working lathes or drill presses. Furthermore, because Australia has a diverse range of native timbers that grow into unusual shapes, Australians have a lot of material to work with when using their workshop.
As well as being influenced by environment, Australians may have been influenced by a cultural frame of to recycle, to adapt, to innovate and most importantly, to use their hands. Such a culture may have been influenced by history.
The first forms of urban Australian craft can be found in Australia's penal era. In holding
cells, Convicts had time to reflect upon the world and it was through their hands
that they concentrated the content of their hearts into tangible vesicles of emotion.
A King James cross fashioned from stolen metal. A child's doll woven from human
hair. Coins defaced of their material value after being scratched with the poignant
message: "from rocks and sand and dangers free, protect my love and me."
In the pioneering age, craft ceased to be an
expression of the heart and instead became a pragmatic solution to necessity.
Living an isolated existence in a harsh and unforgiving land, bushman learnt that
there was no one to listen to complaints and no welfare when things got difficult.
In times of hardship, the bushmen had no choice but to adapt, improvise and make
do. With an optimistic outlook, they developed a can-do culture based on finding
lateral solutions to novel problems.
were fashioned from whatever material was available. A beer mug made from a hollow
tree trunk. Coolers made by dripping water over canvas. Hats with corks to swat
away the flies. Wheels from sliced tree logs. Ant hills puddled into water and
spread across the floor to make a cement like surface. Strips of possum fur wound
around the base of table legs to prevent ants invading food.
craft served a purely functional purpose and aside from appreciation for ingenuity,
they provoked few feelings. But to sympathetic and informed eyes, they now
vividly state the material and spiritual aspirations of vanished generations.
The most famous craft of the pioneering
era came from the Kelly Gang who fashioned plough shares into body armour.
In their thoughts, the Kelly gang imagined iron protecting their bodies as they
led the downcast into a revolution. But through history, the armour has become
so much more. It has become a muse for creativity; a mask that concealed the face
of Kelly, hiding his humanity, leaving nothing but an emotionless warrior. Yet
at his trial, the unmasked Kelly revealed the voice of a poetic. A man loyal to
his family, his friends and his convictions. Even when all hope was lost, a man
of passion, courage and defiance. Such contradictions have inspired artists to
paint, to write and to sing his story with his armour representing the essence
of his life.
Towards the end of
the 19th Century, some craftsmen evolved into artisans and set about introducing
aesthetics into their home. Scrimshaws from bone, bullock horns and emus eggs.
Picture frames decorated with gumnuts. Pillow cases sewn from an assortment of
animal hides and hessian. Cigar boxes decorated with shards of pottery. A sign
on the door of a modest bush hut saying "home."
the 20th century, farmers and roaming swagman who lacked access to shops, continued
to fashion their own solutions to their necessity. Letterboxes made from old milk
tins. Automated fishing reels from window blind rollers mounted on a stick. Barbeques
from old steel drums. Sticks and vines lashed into beds, gantries, animal traps
Recreation was also important
and sharing a song with a new friend was a favoured pastime. Needing to travel
light, Aboriginal droving hands, swagman and bullockers fashioned musical instruments
out of whatever was available. A 'lagerphone' invented by nailing bottle tops
onto branches. The 'bones' made from two sawn ribs of a bullock. A didgeridoo
made from hollow tree log. A violin from an empty cigar box, wallaby sinews for
strings and horse hair for the bow.
parents too poor to buy them toys, children learnt at an early age that making
do was a superior alternative to doing without. Aussie rules footballs made from
possum skin filled with charcoal. Cricket bats from a flat piece of timber screwed
onto a tree branch. Stumps from old kerosene cans. Go-carts from discarded wheels
and packing crates. Powered cars making use of an elastic band and cardboard propellers.
Dolls from scrap cloth and straw worked around old boots. The humble boomerang
from a curved stick. A shanghai from forked branch and inner tube.
at war also showed them themselves more than capable of finding lateral solutions
to novel problems. At Gallipoli, the Diggers fastened mirrors onto their
guns to act as a telescope that could safely see over the top of the trenches.
For the evacuation, to fool the Turks that Diggers were still fighting, guns were
left with a makeshift timer set by dripping water into a can suspended from
In the Vietnam war,
the Diggers devised an ingenious mine clearing device towed by a tank. Away from
the conflict, others made bongs out of cans, buckets and bottles. Not only did
the bongs do a great job in getting them stoned, the simple design helped keep
their activities secret from their commanding officers.
the end of the 20th century, craft making began to flower in the cities. The most
notable style was the recycling of fence pailings into tables, picture frames
and book covers. Other common crafts included clocks fitted to polished tree burls,
timber carved into candle holders and cigar boxes making use of gum nuts embedded
in native timbers. In a world flooded
with plastic and chipboard, such craft provided character, history, and naturalness.
time, the city craftsmen evolved their work so they were not merely producing
innovative household goods, they were producing works of art. Some created wood
mosaics of the landscape. Others shaped natural timber into sculptures that acted
as a catalyst for thought or a reservoir of emotions.
feature of many of the wooden sculptures are their feminine elements. Perhaps
this reflects men sublimating their appreciation for females or women seeking
a homo-erotic exploration. More likely though, it stems from the randomness of
the Australian timber that compels the craftsmen to reveal mother nature's female
form. Unlike the straight grained timber of the northern hemisphere, the grain
of Australian timber ebbs and flows like a river. Branches are born only to die,
and are then concealed by new layers of bark ala an oyster growing a pearl. In
its lifetime, almost every wild tree will be burnt by fire but rather than die,
the tree will recover, flowing new growth into and over its scare.
such a myriad of lines flowing in so many directions, it is not uncommon to discover
the timber grain flowing into the curves of breasts or little men in canoes. Not
only does the grain reveal feminine lines, but also feelings of delicacy, strength,
softness and hardness. It is a form that encourages hand use.