Sculp­tor Ben­jamin Gil­bert is liv­ing the artis­tic dream of mak­ing and cre­at­ing in the bush, while bring­ing life back to an old sawmill in Yackandandah.

North East Living Magazine - - Contents - words Anita Mcpher­son pho­tos Marc Bongers

Yackandandah sculp­tor Ben­jamin Gil­bert is liv­ing the artis­tic dream of mak­ing and cre­at­ing in the bush.

A ME­TEOR shower once hap­pened in Cran­bourne, and it is the im­pe­tus for one of sculp­tor Ben­jamin Gil­bert’s lat­est cre­ations for a hous­ing es­tate in the outer east­ern sub­urb of Mel­bourne.

Ben is mak­ing sculp­tures for a re­serve within the de­vel­op­ment, build­ing seven “big and frac­tured” steel struc­tures which will stand on an­gles over a dis­tance of 300 me­tres.

They will be painted in a black colour that has a fleck through it, the same paint used on the Syd­ney Har­bour Bridge, and clad in sec­tions of per­fo­rated steel.

At night when they are lit from in­side, Ben says they will have a depth of struc­ture that will make them look like crys­tals, cap­tur­ing the dis­tinc­tive qual­ity iron me­te­ors have when they are cut.

He ex­plains the me­te­ors are pub­lic art­works, ap­proved by coun­cil for their con­cep­tual merit as if coun­cil was com­mis­sion­ing the project them­selves, but paid for by devel­op­ers who had “a blank pad­dock they want to make in­ter­est­ing”.

“Be­cause it’s a hous­ing es­tate where peo­ple live, most peo­ple will ac­tu­ally be there at night time (rather than dur­ing the day) so this will give a bet­ter im­pres­sion of me­te­ors,” he said.

For the next 12 months, Ben and his team will be busy in their work­shop lo­cated on the site of an old sawmill in Yackandandah, cre­at­ing all kinds of unique and some­times func­tional sculp­tural pieces.

The work has to sat­isfy a long list of re­quire­ments, in­clud­ing be­ing safe for the pub­lic and chil­dren to in­ter­act with, and he’s proud to be turn­ing “cookie cut­ter” con­cepts of kids play equip­ment on its head, in­stead of­fer­ing them the op­por­tu­nity to go wild and use their imag­i­na­tions.

His gi­ant tur­tle shells are prov­ing pop­u­lar ev­ery­where with kids who love to clam­ber and slide over them, and the can­tilevered “Eddy” in Mt Beauty, where kids can climb up and then slide from an al­most float­ing wa­ter drop, was de­signed with a nod to the re­gion’s hy­dro scheme.

There is also a huge metal­lic “hump­back gun­ship” whale he­li­copter com­plete with fringed teeth, which is a whim­si­cal char­ac­ter kids can climb into and make up their own sto­ries with.

A project Ben is cur­rently work­ing on is to cre­ate a stand of pop­pies which will each be three me­tres in di­am­e­ter, with rub­ber wall stems made from a re­cy­cled coal con­veyor belt, and so­lar pan­els for petals.

The petals will be mov­able and able to be di­rected to­wards the sun, and the work will take cen­tre stage in a play­ground for refugee kids in in­ner city Mel­bourne.

Ben says what he cre­ates needs to be mean­ing­ful and prac­ti­cal “for all peo­ple” and is in­flu­enced by fac­tors in­clud­ing the landscape, the site’s past as well as its fu­ture use.

“There are lay­ers about why you do some­thing on a spe­cific sub­ject,” he said.

“The play­ground was on a con­tam­i­nated site, so it’s about the fu­ture gen­er­a­tion, deal­ing with the his­tor­i­cal legacy of con­tam­i­na­tion, and the poet­ics of coal and so­lar to­gether.”

The work comes to Ben in a va­ri­ety of ways but it’s of­ten through re­fer­rals from past projects; from pri­vate or pub­lic en­ti­ties who ap­pre­ci­ate his abil­ity to com­bine the con­cep­tual with the prac­ti­ca­ble.

“The cul­tural idea we have about ‘in­spi­ra­tion’ and ‘ cre­ativ­ity’ is de­struc­tive - it’s not at all the job,” he said.

“The job is to look at all these ‘out there’ in­puts and how they re­late tan­gen­tially - and at the node where they in­ter­sect - that’s your idea.”

Ben has made a con­scious de­ci­sion to base him­self and his busi­ness in Yackandandah - the place where he grew up and where his par­ents still live.

Around 15 years ago he came across the old sawmill, which had stood un­used for a decade on 7000 square me­tres of crown land, and was des­tined to be pulled down.

He re­mem­bers vis­it­ing it as a kid to get wood­chips, and when he heard one day that some­one was try­ing to sell it, thought it would make an ideal and af­ford­able lo­cal stu­dio.

The sawmill was full of its orig­i­nal ma­chin­ery - Ben says he could have flicked a switch and cut logs - but it was also se­ri­ously run down and home to rats and waist high this­tles.

The site has now been re­vived and has be­come the head­quar­ters for “Agency of Sculp­ture”, but Ben has also built an un­con­ven­tional “care­tak­ers res­i­dence” next door where he and his part­ner and young son live.

The house clings to the edge of a steep em­bank­ment, al­most hang­ing over the dam where off-cuts from the sawmill were reg­u­larly dumped and burnt.

It was built by Ben and his ar­chi­tect brother Chris over two years in be­tween sculp­ture com­mis­sions; be­com­ing an award win­ning project which re­cently fea­tured in Aus­tralia’s Grand De­signs tele­vi­sion pro­gram.>>

The re­mark­able home was de­signed by Chris but in­cor­po­rated the pair’s “on the fly” ideas, with Ben want­ing his brother to have the op­por­tu­nity and free­dom to use his vi­sion and ex­per­tise.

“It is re­ally hard in ar­chi­tec­ture to see a project through in your vi­sion with­out it be­ing com­pro­mised,” he said.

“I think as so­ci­ety we re­ally do a dis­ser­vice to what is a re­ally rig­or­ous pro­fes­sion - a very de­mand­ing ed­u­ca­tion - and we com­pro­mise it.

“Clients stuff up their projects more of­ten than not in ar­chi­tec­ture be­cause peo­ple are afraid and noth­ing in­ter­est­ing gets built.”

Ben is dis­heart­ened by a cul­ture in Aus­tralia where clients ner­vous about in­vest­ing con­sid­er­able dol­lars are miss­ing out on the ben­e­fits of good ar­chi­tec­ture by choos­ing the safer op­tion.

He said in­stead of mak­ing the most of a larger bud­get to im­ple­ment a more cre­ative de­sign, the ar­chi­tect will in­stead be called on to make the floor plan big­ger.

While he ac­knowl­edges that there are some great ar­chi­tec­tural projects hap­pen­ing in the coun­try, he’s dis­ap­pointed that it’s such a small per­cent­age of ev­ery­thing that gets made.

In the same way he shrugs off con­cepts of ad­her­ing to “style” and “fash­ion” and takes a more prag­matic ap­proach; see­ing the value in the way a build­ing or ma­te­rial will “live” with you in the long term.

“It’s ac­tu­ally a cost to the fu­ture - it’s not just about be­ing pretty or look­ing good - it changes the whole way you feel in the space and your en­thu­si­asm for life,” he said.

Ben be­lieves his frus­tra­tion with “the en-masse de­ci­sions of so­ci­ety” has prob­a­bly driven him to do what he does best - to be cre­ative, bend the rules and do things dif­fer­ently.

His home is made from huge, rough-sided blocks which had to be hauled into place, the blocks moulded out of left­over con­crete emp­tied from ce­ment mix­ers, mean­ing no two are identical.

But the struc­ture’s key, and ar­guably most unique fea­ture, is the way it moves.

The house has a glass slid­ing wall which can be opened to the el­e­ments and to the bush­land view over the dam, and the ve­ran­dah roof also re­tracts hy­drauli­cally to its full, 15 me­tre length.

The macro­carpa bat­ten screen across the front of the house is not only beau­ti­ful, but pro­vides a safe, in­door out­door space for the cou­ple’s son to play, and also opens com­pletely to cre­ate a tree-house like ef­fect.

In­side the light floods in to the liv­ing area and cre­ates a warm glow as it bounces off the gleam­ing brass lined cup­boards across the back wall and the red stringy bark boards on the floor and ceil­ing.

Ben said hav­ing lived in the sawmill for years in the old saw sharp­en­ing room, his apart­ment sized one bed­room home is much more com­fort­able for the fam­ily, and its beauty is en­hanced with be­spoke fit­tings and fur­nish­ings cre­ated next door.

He orig­i­nally stud­ied fur­ni­ture de­sign in the “ide­alised wilder­ness” of Tas­ma­nia and con­sid­ered study­ing ar­chi­tec­ture, but found it too slow - pre­fer­ring to be able to sketch some­thing and build it the same day.

Over the years he has honed his skills and de­vel­oped a prac­ti­cal un­der­stand­ing of what it costs to make some­thing, a qual­ity ap­pre­ci­ated by his clients.

“A lot of peo­ple that do art and sculp­ture don’t nec­es­sar­ily know how to make things, or only know one par­tic­u­lar way, but fur­ni­ture de­sign is much more than con­cept-based,” he said.

Ben be­lieves one of the biggest mis­for­tunes in art ed­u­ca­tion is that stu­dents aren’t en­cour­aged to be re­li­able.

He said there is a need to dis­pense with the idea of the way­ward artist and em­brace the con­cept of the artist trades­man - a real­ist who can make some­thing on time and on bud­get.

“That’s where you have to be cre­ative - in­ter­pret­ing what peo­ple need and some­times pro­vid­ing an al­ter­na­tive that is sound eco­nom­i­cally, con­cep­tu­ally and is de­liv­er­able,” he said.

In terms of op­er­at­ing a man­u­fac­tur­ing busi­ness, Ben says it made sense to be based in Yackandandah where he is a half an hour drive from ev­ery­thing he needs.

He said Al­bury Wodonga has a di­verse foot­print of man­u­fac­tur­ing of­fer­ing ac­cess to just about all the ser­vices he needs, and be­ing lo­cated be­tween Mel­bourne and Syd­ney has ac­tu­ally po­si­tioned him as “the sculp­tor from the North East”.

Ru­ral liv­ing has also seemed to strike a chord with “so­ci­ety’s ro­man­tic no­tion” of an artist “mak­ing and cre­at­ing” in the bush, where Ben has the free­dom to make big things and to build a house.

“In a way it helps - peo­ple trust that you can do what you say you’re go­ing to do,” he said.

“There is a real joy in mak­ing things that are right for the place, for the time and that just res­onate - that’s what I think good sculp­ture is all about.”

HAND­MADE / Sparks fly as Agency of Sculp­ture’s Ben­jamin Gil­bert gets down to work cre­at­ing a tur­tle shell play space for one of his clients.

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