WHEN CREATIVITY BECOMES A SERIOUS BUSINESS
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.
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.