The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age 1/11/2016
Jewellery maker Bin Dixon-Ward's father was a captain. For nine months of the year he would command cargo ships all over the world, and until she was 15 "family time" meant going along for the ride.
"Every school holidays we would be packed off on the ship," she says. "It would be me, my sister, my mum and 40 men! It was no cruise ship. It was a working cargo ship. You'd be in port for two days while they loaded and unloaded and the rest of the time was pretty tedious time at sea."
A cargo ship might seem unlikely inspiration for a jeweller, but Dixon-Ward's latest exhibition is part of a festival that explores the overlap between two realms that aren't often spoken about in the same breath. The inaugural Art & Industry Festival will take over the west of Melbourne later this month, and Dixon-Ward's exhibition The Captain's Daughter is one of dozens of events that find inspiration in unlikely places.
"It relates to the sensations I remember about being at sea as a young girl," she says. "I've made a number of pieces that capture the idea of the motion of the sea. A ship where within the shape of the ship is the waveform of rolling through the ocean. That's a brooch. I've made necklaces which are about the containers that ships carry. The west is full of those containers and I've taken that form. And I've made bangles that are again those waveform shapes, trying to capture the motion of the ship through the wave. That's what shipping's all about. It's about movement. The ships are always moving."
Most routes to the west of Melbourne take you past those skyscraper-sized ships or those mountains of cargo containers, but as Dixon-Ward notes, it's rare that you spot a person in that view. Her work is a reminder that industry is home to countless human stories, if you care to get up close.
Zoya Martin's exhibition of photography Talking Hands follows this train of thought even further. She has gone into the homes of more than a dozen workers from a wide variety of industries to talk about their work lives and try to capture something of that history via images of their hands.
Martin discovered early on that asking about the story of a person's hands could get people to open up in curious ways. "I'm talking to them about their working experiences but I'm saying 'so what were your hands doing? What were they feeling? Were they ever injured?' And I'm actually getting details of their stories that I wouldn't otherwise. Of course, it's their story but it also makes them feel somehow separated from it when they're talking about their hands. It's this strange thing that's worked."
She began the project at home. "Dad's got great hands. They're always a bit dry and cracked and he's always sporting a black thumbnail. He's always building something. He actually built aircraft, but he can build anything, really."
He also built their family house in Altona in 1980. "It was really interesting hearing about the process of building the house and what he endured to get the house built. Of course, I kind of knew the story just from being in the family but I'd never spoken to Dad and asked him what his hands experienced in the process."
From there the project expanded in all directions: a boat builder of 54 years who described the mechanisation of his profession, and a stonemason lamenting the introduction of diamond-saws where once two hands and a chisel would do. There is a nurse from the former Altona hospital who recalls the days of delivering babies before anyone wore gloves, and Syd Sherrin, fourth-generation football maker whose family company was sold to Spalding but who still produces a few balls each year in his Williamstown garage.
"He spoke about how you turn a piece of leather into something that everyone loves, and something that could be used in an AFL grand final. It was about pride in the workmanship. It wasn't just a job."
One lesson Martin kept learning was how "when you make something with your hands in that really physical, tactile way, you do become one with your work". "Now that it's all mechanised and you've got these machines, even if you're the one controlling the machine there's that distance between you and the product you're creating. While I could see that all this mechanisation and automation was making things easier, and a lesser toll on people's hands, they were feeling separated from what they were creating."
Festival director Donna Jackson is no stranger to the marriage of art and industry. In the past she has created ballets for cranes and earthmovers and crushed cars for kids' entertainment. "Why should art be pretty? Why shouldn't art be tough and strong and sexy?"
Jackson traces her fascination with all things industrial back to childhood. "My Dad drove a 10-tonne truck and I used to go out with him when I was about four and we'd deliver sand to General Motors. There were no seatbelts or anything like that. Kids were allowed to go into GMH and be inside and there were lots of sparks and metal being poured. It had a really big impression on me. So now when I make art, a lot of the art I'm interested in has an industrial flavour and smell."
Jackson lives in Newport and describes part of the appeal of the industrial west as the sheer sense of scale you don't find elsewhere. "The aesthetic here is big tanks, big bridge, power station, a place where they used to quarry bluestone and build ships and trains."
"I was attracted to the scale of the place as well.," Spotswood signwriter Tony Mead says. "Things are big over here." When Mead was looking for a new home for his business 16 years ago, he initially scoured the traditional areas such as Fitzroy and Collingwood, only to witness the astronomical rents that a wave of gentrification in the '90s had left behind.
"All of the industrial areas back then were getting turned into residential. What attracted me to this area was that it was still industrial and it wasn't being sold as 'convert this into a house.' "
Mead is one of a few signwriters who can still work by hand, and during the festival will be creating a mural that nods to some of the ingredients upon which the west was built – soot, steam, salt and sand. He will be using some of the same kinds of techniques that were involved in the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and while he is skilled up on the latest techniques in computer-assisted printing, he has noticed how the disappearance of the old-fashioned craft of hand-painting has given it a new currency.
"It's gone from a completely manual industrial process to completely digital, now. Most signs these days are printed. So I've watched the transition and what interests me about this whole area is that if you hang onto those initial inspirations that you have from when you learned your hand skills, you can take them with you. You don't have to jettison everything and say 'we're digital now so that's all history.' "
Mead says that in a way he hopes there is a deeper lesson in there about embracing change without necessarily throwing away all that came before. And make no mistake: this area of Melbourne is changing fast. "We're going through a time where Toyota's closing, factories and space are becoming empty and then people are moving into them and designing and making things," Jackson says. "It feels like something is disappearing but something else new is happening."
Shane Paton moved his company Quazi Design into the area 3½ years ago and has been settled in Spotswood for the past two. He had been collecting and restoring mid-century furniture for the past 15 years but after moving west he was asked to design a table for a customer. That one-off turned into orders, businesses came knocking and soon he found himself pioneering a furniture-making enterprise that somehow combines vintage, antique, industrial and custom design.
Paton found that a business that came about almost by accident was suddenly being featured on The Block. "Suddenly everyone in Australia was ordering these stools. They put this magazine out with it on the front page and there were 10 different images of our stools all through it. It became a flavour of the month. It grew and grew."
The industrial edge to so much design in the west is an antidote to the past decade's anaesthetised design trends, Paton says. "I think people are getting away from this perfect, high-polished, minimalistic, Nordic thing where everything is so stripped back that we're living in hospitals. When people have gotten over that and gone 'well, I've got to live, I've got to enjoy my furniture' they're tending to get towards more worn, aged things. Things with character, they're not so stressed that they're going to chip that fine bit of marble. That's what the attraction of industrial is."
The embrace of the industrial aesthetic is such that you can now find out the provenance of the timber on your tabletop. When Two Birds Brewing set up in Spotswood a couple of years ago, the IKEA fitout just wasn't encouraging people to stick around for long, so owners Jayne Lewis and Danielle Allen turned to Quazi Design for assistance. Now the brewery does a bustling trade and is about to expand into the factory next door.
Like many new ventures flourishing in the west, Two Birds began – appropriately enough – out on a limb. "I don't know why we thought people would come," Lewis says. "I still don't know why. I guess you hope that something would resonate.
"It's nice that the west is embracing so many new businesses. You feel the groundswell. Even from when we opened this through to today. In terms of people walking in the door, there's a stack more. We kind of find two different demographics. A lot of the young families with small children, and then a lot of the more empty-nesters."
Two Birds is housed in an old factory that has been home to everything from an industrial cannery to war-time fuse-making. Like most everything in the Art & Industry Festival, it feels poised between two moments, part of a conversation that has yet to be resolved.
"You could say 'what's happening in the west, is it a wave of gentrification?' " says Jackson. "I don't think it is."
But there are apartment blocks sprouting up across the west, and historic buildings disappearing overnight. How the future of the area will pan out is still in question.
"I live in an old shopfront and it's cement and brutalist," Jackson says. "I love that. Part of me would worry about lots of new people moving into the area who want it to be the Blue Mountains. It's not the Blue Mountains. It's the petrochemical heart of Australia. There are sad things about that, there are great things about that, and industry has driven this area and people have relied on it. I love it. I'm not alone."
Bailey, J 2016, “Illumination in the heart of steel”, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age 1/11/2016 https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/m05cover-20160929-grrd8z.html