Artist John Kelly has lived in Ireland for years but he has returned to his old stomping ground in working class Sunshine in Melbourne to create a civic sculpture that pays tribute to his father — and recalls a piece of luck that set him on his course to become an artist.
The conveyor belt whirs as I stand with my arm perched on a shovel reading The Myth of Sisyphus. My journey with Albert Camus to the Marsh had begun before dawn, in Sunshine in Melbourne’s west, when I started work at the weighbridge. Mountain View Quarries was once where the ‘new’ Teddy Whitten Bridge arcs the Maribyrnong River as it meanders west towards Mount Macedon.
My father had got a part-time job for me at ‘his’ quarry and I worked for several hours on the weighbridge in the morning and then hitched a lift on one of the trucks up to Bacchus Marsh where I was to paint the quarry’s weighbridge. After all, in 1985 I was a third-year art student majoring in painting.
The day I am describing is the day I didn’t paint; it was the day a conveyor-belt had become unbalanced and every 20 minutes or so clogged the workings with sand. I was re-tasked to stop the sand building up, which meant every 20 minutes I needed to clear the sand by shovelling for about 30 seconds which allowed me to return to Camus’s vision of the modern assembly-line worker as told through the story of Sisyphus.
The Gods had banished Sisyphus from Earth to spend eternity pushing a large rock up a hill. When he reached the summit and the rock rolled back, Sisyphus was obliged to begin his task again. His crime? — loving life on earth so much that he refused to leave when his time was up. My paintings in the year that followed were essentially portraits of rocks.
I am thinking of Sisyphus as I think of my father working in that quarry in an oversized loader filling trucks with crushed rock, often seven days a week, for 30 years or more. My father was always in overalls and I remember the boots at the back door and the overalls hung in the laundry with their dusty covering. He’s been sick now for about three years; lung cancer, which followed his bladder cancer, which followed his prostrate cancer.
Up until his 80th birthday he had been pretty healthy for somebody who smoked since the age of eight. Being brought up on an Irish farm in the ’30 and ’40s would do that to you. He was the youngest son; no room at the farm for a boy of 20, who, like so many others before him on the boat to Bristol was confronted with signs on B&Bs that said No Dogs, No Irish.
There he met my mother and in 1965 he fathered an artist, who was to become famous for his strange animal installations, his branding projects and the millions of dollars that collectors would pay for his work at auction houses like Sotheby’s.
The artist would exhibit in London, Paris and Monte Carlo and be collected by David Walsh, that eccentric collector who built MONA in Hobart. The artist’s name might have been Damian Hirst of course, but I was born a few months earlier, probably in the same hospital and did all those things — but luckily for Damian, my parents emigrated a few months after my birth, giving him a free run in the UK. So as boat people, ten-pound tourists , we left an English winter for a Birchip summer with a boat ride down the Suez Canal in between.
Maybe that is why I was used to travelling from the age of six months and at two my family departed the heat and arrived in Sunshine where I grew up at Our Lady’s Primary School, Sunshine North Technical School, Crossroads Football Club and the Sunshine Cricket Club.
If you had told me back when I was shovelling sand, that now at the age of 50 I would be working in a factory in Sunshine I would have been horrified. For that was a time when I had dreams of greatness on the cricket pitch or in the art studio.
Now I find myself over the bridge, close to Parson’s Reserve in the shadow of the wheat silos where I used to run little athletics and where I broke my leg playing footy against that old foe, Albion. That was before I left for England in my early 20s to play cricket.
My Sunshine cricket days were fun. It’s where I first had success in the under 16s; 9 for 26 against Braybrook bowling leg breaks and then 109 not out in the U16 Grand Final. It’s where Stelarc’s brother coached me in the art of spin bowling. Yes Stelarc’s a Sunshine boy as well.
The cricket club is where I learnt to drink and to travel outside the neighbourhood, around Melbourne seeing different suburbs. This may sound strange today when kids fly to America on school-excursions, but in the late ’70s and early ’80s our end of year school excursion was a trip to Toorak, to see how the other half lived.
The other major trip was to see an exhibition of French painting at the National Gallery of Victoria. In those days in Sunshine there were no galleries or public sculptures to gaze at. Modern or contemporary art in Melbourne was generally considered as something to be sneered at exemplified by the renamed Yellow Peril. I was told by friends and family members quite a few times to forget this thing called art and get a job.
But Sunshine North technical School inspired me, it had a great art department with two gorgeous art teachers, Jackie and Sandy, I had a crush on both of them. What did David Walsh once say?: “We make [art] to appease, to get laid, to satisfy. It’s a biological imperative”. Both encouraged me in my art and Sandy’s report in year ten was prophetic.
From Sunny North Tech — to T.O.P at RMIT — to shovelling sand and a degree in painting at RMIT may have been it, but cricket eventually got me out. More specifically, a motorcycle accident on the way to the quarry that led to an insurance pay-out enabled me to take up the offer of a visiting English cricketing professional.
David Ward who played for Surrey was playing at Sunshine during his off-season and invited me to play in the Surrey Championship League. What a year that was in 1988, but I was never destined for cricket greatness, for art was where my heart was and I made it for ten years whilst working part-time in the RMIT Central Library. It’s where I discovered the camouflage scheme that was to inspire my work that was to be the basis of my master’s degree and appropriately it came from a book titled Over-sexed, over-paid and over here.
In 1995 I won the Samstag Scholarship and I was off to the Slade School of Art in London and from there to be represented by the Piccadilly Gallery in Cork Street and then to exhibit on the Champs Elysee, Monte Carlo, before heading over to Ireland where I bought a farm and my parents visited me for the whole of the ’00s.
But how did I get to art school at all? Although my Dad worked in the quarry all day and often into the night to secure a future for his family it was not enough to send me to art school.
I remember the summer of 1982; there was a recession and I was humiliated in Kentucky Fried Chicken on the Ballarat Road when I applied for a job. The manager did not know what T.O.P. (Tertiary Orientation Program) meant. His colleague informed him (in front of me) that it was what kids did that were not smart enough to do HSC (Higher School Certificate).
Didn’t he know Sunshine North technical School didn’t have a HSC year because you were expected to have secured an apprenticeship or gone labouring well before then? T.O.P. was the only way to go on and subsequently I had secured a place at the RMIT art school to study painting, but was desperate for a job to earn some money so I could go. Mum had said, no summer job, no college! I played cricket instead.
But it was my Mum who made it happen. She was the creative one and I remember the blazing row about the cost of going to art school and my inability to get a job over the summer. Maybe I had played too much cricket, after all, I was only 17 and still dreamed of playing for Australia.
Mum told me she could not afford to send me to art school. But what she hadn’t told me was that she had entered a ‘win a wish’ competition advertised on the side of a milk carton. Her wish was to send her son to art school. A few days later Henry Dempster appeared at our door. Henry was the shopkeeper from over the road whose phone number Mum would leave because we didn’t have a phone in those days. Henry was at the door to tell her a radio station wanted to talk to her.
3KZ was ringing to say she’d won her wish to send her son to art school. Cleverly she had filled out the coupon on the side of the milk carton and instead of cutting it out, had wrapped the whole carton (sans milk) in brightly coloured Christmas paper. In another era she might have gone to art school herself.
So here I find myself 30 years later enjoying working in a factory in Sunshine at the Fundere foundry. In the morning I am making Man Lifting Cow, a 5.5 metre bronze sculpture that will be installed on the Hampshire Road in Sunshine next year. In the afternoon I drive my Dad to hospital for his radiotherapy. I have arrived via exhibition in London and New York where in the former, my painting was hung next to a Lucien Freud. Of course Freud is famous for painting that other Sunshine boy, Leigh Bowery.
But what’s the sculpture about? It relates to Australian art history; ‘When World War II broke out. Bill [Dobell] served first as a camouflage labourer, later as an artist recording the work of the Civil Construction Corps, which built airfields and other defence projects. As a camouflagist, he was one of a group of several, later famous, artists who had been ordered to make papier-mache cows and move them around the base in the hope of fooling Japanese pilots. (said Bill, “I think the authorities underestimated the eyesight of Japanese airmen”.) For almost a year he shared a hut with fellow-artist Joshua Smith,” wrote Dr Edward McMahon in an obituary for Sir “Bill” Dobell in Reader’s Digest in 1970.
So it might be a monument to our artists who served Australia in World War II defending this country with clever designs and tricks that fascinated me for years. Or alternatively, it may be a monument to the absurdity of it all.
William Dobell, Joshua Smith, Max Dupain are some of the artists involved in that scheme. The long neck and small head of the cow in my sculpture is based on Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith which won the 1943 Archibald portrait prize — and that ended in another form of war.
So, like many civic monuments this is a monument to war whose composition is based on the famous American image of raising the flag at Iwo Jima, itself something tricked up a little, as my man elevates the fake beast into the air in the same way some people revere the abstract design of a flag.
But it could also be about Sisyphus. My man will be lifting this cow for eternity, but then again there will be no trudging down the hill where Camus argued Sisyphus was free to imagine (this is based on my 30 year old memory of this book). You might also explore the Jungian symbolism of the cow being associated with the concept of mother — and my father would seem to emerge from his overalls to support her. And the cow is in the shape of a milk carton — it’s the wish come true of course!
For me this is the most significant piece of art I have ever made and now I have finished the clay and plaster model, it’s ready for casting. I leave it in Fundere’s hands while I will travel to the airport via the Teddy Whitten Bridge and see on my left, that gouged valley where I will imagine Sisyphus conquering that long eternal walk down to the river.
John Kelly’s sculpture Man Lifting Cow is expected to be completed in nine months. The work, commissioned by Brimbank City Council, will be installled in Hampshire Road, Sunshine.