Chapter 1 – Windfall

Manna gum woodland, Silver Creek

She is mine. Or at least, six metres of her. Diameter one-and-a-half metres. Weight approximately seven tonnes. Delivered today on Ken Mathers’ flatbed truck. The result of a year’s worth of favours called in and more than a few strings pulled at Parks Victoria.

For years she lay alongside the boggy woodland trail, awash in a feathery green sea of bracken. Skipper and I walked by her many a time: I would cast an appraising eye and think ‘If only …’ and ‘What if … ?’; Skipper would poke an appraising nose and cock his leg.

She came down in a wild storm 12 years ago. She’s in pretty good shape considering. Just enough rot and borer attack to give her timber extra character.

Why must you anthropomorphise inanimate objects as ‘she’, Dad?

It’s a matter of emotional attachment, I guess, Freya. The people I love most are female. Anyway a tree is not inanimate.

The manna gum gets its name from the sugary secretion which oozes from wounds in the trunk and hardens. This ‘manna’ is an important food source for many small woodland creatures. The foliage of the manna gum, conversely, is toxic to most animals – except the koalas that doze high in the canopy, zonked out on narcotic leaves. Dreaming furry koala dreams.

The tree is also called ‘ribbon gum’, as the bark peels off in long ribbons during summer, leaving the upper trunk and branches a smooth white. By reflecting sunlight this cools the canopy, reducing water stress in dry periods. Another purpose may be to pull wildfire up into the crown: these trees need a rapid, explosive but swiftly passing bushfire to open their seed cases and release their seed into the fertile ash of the burnt forest floor. The smouldering ribbons carry for kilometres downwind as firebrands. Setting more fires.

The manna gums along our morning walk stand straight and tall. We wander in a Gothic cathedral of stately pillars with a filigree vault of dappled green, backlit by an azure sky. These are young trees that were seeded into dense woodland.

This fallen giant, by contrast, grew slowly. She twisted herself out of the earth, spreading luxuriantly into the sky. It must have been more open country back then, tended by Yorta Yorta custodians according to their needs and customs. Thus the young tree had no need to shoot straight up, in order to seize a patch of sunlight in a crowded sky.

Manna gum is a medium-dense hardwood, easy to work with power or hand tools. However seasoning is difficult. Which is why this naturally seasoned, wind-felled specimen …

Dad, the readers won’t care about the technical details. Can we get on with the story, please?

Well, I maintain that this is relevant. Besides, who is telling the story? Are you going to keep on interrupting, Freya?

I pace around the section of trunk in my workshop. View her from different angles. Pat her and run my hand along her. Sit with her and listen to her, my cheek pressed to her skin.

Skipper wags his tail and cocks an ear in slight concern. Kelpies are not good at contemplation: they prefer frenetic action and a full to-do list.

I hear the wind in her leaves, the lonely call of the currawong and the whistle and crack of the whipbird. The steady munch of borer grubs in her sapwood and the scratch of koala claws. The patter of Yorta Yorta children’s feet as they play around her base.

The echo of the woodman’s axe is followed by the groan and crash as her siblings are felled. Curses and songs in English, German, Irish and Cantonese as diggers scour and sift the creek for the yellow metal.

I haven’t yet decided what she will become, but she has sown a seed in my mind.

Chapter 2 – inspiration’s gift

Traces

I wake at three thirty. It’s inky black outside. A warm night for November. Fevered, I scribble down the gift of my unconscious mind, commit it to paper before it fades. I cover sheet after sheet with charcoal and pencil sketches.

Then, as day breaks, I move into the third dimension, building maquettes in modelling clay. To get the subtractive effect of carving, I fashion mini tree trunks that approximate the unworked timber, then cut into them with a scalpel, scoop them with a wire loop, press indentations with a ball stylus.

Skipper has to wait for his breakfast and morning walk. He is unimpressed.

I think I already mentioned that most manna gum trunks are straight. Not this one. You can see how the tree twisted itself out of the earth, screwing upwards into the sky. I’ll keep that rotational character in the piece.

I want to retain as much of the sapwood as possible: the burrowing of beetles under the bark, the lyctid borer holes. This will give the shroud of hair its texture.

Hair? A human form, then.

That’s right, Freya. Sorry, didn’t I mention that?

No, you got carried away, Dad. A standing figure, presumably?

Not as static as that. Leaning, pushing forward. Almost flying.

Sounds like a galleon’s figurehead.

No, Freya. At least, not the like of any that has yet been seen. Not one of those stiff things with jutting bosom and bland, rosy-cheeked face. More dynamic, asymmetrical.

At the front, I’ll go deep. From the eagerly leaning, swirling form emerges a face serene and terrible. Highly finished, realistic, whereas the back is impressionistic, rough-hewn, almost crude.

Descending to a shapely breast and softly rounded belly and loins. These will be carved into the heartwood. With any luck there will be striking grey streaks, shot through the pale wood.

Sigh. Just what the Western artistic tradition needs: another naked female body bared to the male gaze. Nice one, Dad. A she-devil, because women can only be maiden or monster, am I right?

Freya, you really are an insufferable brat. This will be a strong female figure. Not mawkish or titillating. Neither virgin nor whore.

Just don’t give her my face, right? I’m traumatised enough by being named after a Norse fertility goddess.

Perish the thought. And Freya is a beautiful name.

Hmm. And you’re not giving it Mum’s face either. Otherwise you’re in for some serious poltergeisting. I have connections.

Don’t threaten me, Freya, sweetheart. You’re a figment of my memory, remember?

Ouch. Nobody likes to be reminded that they’re dead. It’s a little tactless, Dad.

Sorry, love. But let’s get back to the subject in hand …

As I work the timber, remove sapwood, the heartwood will dry and split. Shakes will open as tensions are released, fibres separate. I’ll either leave them be or fill them with resin. Maybe bronze resin — or gold?

I need a strong, heavy base to support that top-heavy, unstable form — strong, without looking blocky and clumsy. I’m thinking of three steel mouldboards from a plough, slotted into the timber, drilled and pinned with stout steel rods. The concave, leaflike shapes will be elegant and the steel strong. I’ll weld them to a massive steel baseplate.

She’s going to be heavy — but will appear weightless if I get this right. It will be quite the engineering challenge. The most daring piece that I’ve ever attempted, conceptually and technically.

I know now what I want to call her. But dare I? They say that naming calls.

Superstitious nonsense. But please, be wary of reliving your old trauma. You don’t want to end up back in the loony bin, Dad.

I don’t think they call it that, these days, darling. But thank you for your concern. I’m touched. Truly.

Chapter 3 – The Song of the Blade

Nature’s sculptors

Wood will guide the carver’s hand. It will tell you what it wants to be.

That’s why I avoid power tools, use them only for the crudest of bulk removal. A power saw will tear through grain; an angle-grinder will gnaw out ugly chunks. They allow you to force the wood, violate its integrity. With few exceptions, a wood carving created with power tools alone, though it may be intricately detailed, is somehow lifeless.

Flow and élan come when the sculptor’s mind, connected through the muscles and nerves of the torso, shoulder, arm and hand, enters into dialogue with the living wood, feels its movement, its resistance and yielding beneath the steel. It’s like …

For the love of God, Dad. Do not write that ‘Sculpting wood is like making love to a woman,’ or I shall vomit.

Perish the thought, Freya. Can ghosts throw up?

You really don’t want to find out.

… Hence, I’ll use the chainsaw only to cut the base at the required slant: the piece has to lean forward at 45 degrees. Then I’ll get to work with the adze and the drawknife. Later will come the chisels and the gouges: the fine work I love most.

I’ll only do the roughest of roughing out while the piece is horizontal on the workshop floor. Then I’ll need to use the ten-tonne chain hoist to lift it into position before I do any detailed work.

Good thing I replaced the rotted beams with steel girders last year.


To work!

It is a relief to put honed steel to wood, after so much plotting, planning, visualising and dreaming, musing and rejecting, sketching and modelling.

I take breaks every hour or so to loosen cramped muscles and knotted joints: this work is strenuous and I’m feeling my age. Most meals are taken in the workshop, where I mull over the next moves, modifying my tactics as new challenges emerge.

Twice a day, Skipper and I take a half-hour walk, either along the damp valley bottom or up the steep slopes, past rounded granite boulders patched with lichen.

The rest of the day, I’m utterly absorbed in the work: in the glorious smell of hardwood shavings, the song of the blade and the percussion of lignum vitae mallet on boxwood handle.

Skipper either watches from his bed in the corner of the workshop, or goes hunting rabbits by himself. If Kelpies could shrug and shake their head in mild despair, he surely would.

Weeks pass. Summer blooms, wilts in the heat, ripens into autumn.

Chapter 4: Banshee

Silver Creek

I like to sit out on my porch in the predawn light, aswim in the sounds of the waking bush. Each morning this is my routine, before feeding Skipper and taking him for our morning constitutional.

Above the constant yet ever-changing chuckle of the water, a shrike-thrush flutes its melody. Pobblebonks call from the muddy margins; marsh frogs tock as if playing erratic rhythms on tiny clapsticks. A family of magpies alights on the deck and carols forth a bold territorial claim. The challenge is answered by the rival clan on the other bank.

In the forest to my left, a koel announces that it is a ko-EL, ko-EL, ko-EL. A fan-tailed cuckoo calls its soft, descending churr. The kookaburra couple perched on a bough of the old red gum wind each other up into a maniacal duet. Somewhere close by, a male koala grunts and roars, advertising his credentials to any female within earshot.

I love this place.

The cottage is old by Aussie standards, built by a soldier settler and his wife after the Great War. It sits on the steep slope above Silver Creek, cut into the earth at one end, supported by rough piles at the other so that it juts out towards the water.

Chris and I bought the property, comprising the cottage, two ramshackle outbuildings and 20 acres of marshy river flat and steep-sloping bush, as newly-weds in the 1980s. A busy city lawyer and a thrusting advertising exec looking for a tranquil bush retreat.

The place was a ‘fixer-upper’ that never got fixed up. We came up sporadically, spent Christmas here with family and friends, started projects.

Then I came along, Dad. How I loved being here, as a little kid! Playing in the meadow, making mud pies in the creek. Chatting with the neighbours’ horses through the fence …

I can still see you tottering and running through the grass, Freya, scattering butterflies and laughing when you fell. You were the happiest toddler.

By the time you were seven or eight, we rented the cottage out to a wildlife photographer. A rum old girl, was Raelene Jones. Left the place in a hellish mess when she died, God rest her soul.

We barely came here for eight years, as we became too busy ‘messing about in boats’, from the Bay to the Bass Strait islands.

Introduced to sailing by my senior partner at the practice, we graduated from a little GRP sloop to a 40-foot, 100-year old Huon pine ketch. The plan was to jump ship from our careers and spend a carefree decade as liveaboards in the South Pacific. We set off on a shake-down cruise around Tasmania.

Then I moved here, after they released me from the clinic. For a few months’ recuperation and healing, which turned into 20 years.

The woodcarving I learned in OT became a full-time occupation. I renovated the barn as a workshop and set to work. Soft city hands became hard and calloused. My heart too.

I don’t like it when you talk that way, Dad.

A man kills the only people he has ever loved, Freya. How is he to go on living? Why is he still living? How dare he continue to draw breath? Those questions cut deep. Wounds like that may scar over, but they never heal.

That’s not how it was, Dad. It was an accident, bad luck.

So I tell myself, Freya, every day. But it doesn’t help.

A hot summer turns into a wet, cool and windy autumn. The creek is swollen and the lower trail muddied and rutted. Skipper and I keep to the higher ground.

In late April, a guy from a Melbourne gallery drives up to look at my work. Nathan. Tall, earnest. In his thirties with a man-bun and a premature stoop. Pommie accent.

He’s hugely enthusiastic about the new piece. Walks around it several times. Stands back. Peers at the borer holes. Calls it ‘monumental’ and ‘daring’. Asks me what its title is.

Off the top of my head I say: ‘Banshee.’ Nathan nods thoughtfully. ‘Synergy of Irish and Australian mythology. Forces of nature. The eternal feminine. I like your thinking.’ I shrug.

Over lunch he suggests an exhibition. We discuss featuring Banshee and two of my other large pieces from last year, yet to find a buyer, together with the preparatory sketches and maquettes. We identify twelve smaller pieces which their owners might loan, to flesh out the one-man show and the catalogue.

I thought Nathan was a wanker. And he meant ‘synthesis’. But I’m surprised you named her that. What happened to ‘Naming calls’?

Sometimes a name cannot be resisted, Freya. It will out, whether the namer wills or no.

Chapter 5 – Labour’s End

Dark water, bright water

It is done. I finished her late last night, then poured myself a celebratory glass of single malt whisky. My favourite drop from the Lark Distillery down in Tassie: peaty and smoky, melting on my tongue.

The weather was suitably dramatic. Lightning rent the darkness and thunder cracked. Heavy rain pounded the roof and ponded in the yard. Skipper took the offered celebratory dog treat and retreated under my bed to safety.

I dodged the rain to scamper back out to the workshop and savour my triumph.

She is more than I ever imagined. Serene. Terrible. An avenging angel of timber and steel. Not angry, nor even cruel, but implacable.

Well done, Dad. I’m proud of you. And — I love you.

Thank you, Freya. I love you, too. I feel that you and Mum are very close now.


In Memoriam — Tom O’Malley (1951–2019)

Tom O’Malley was one of Australia’s most distinctive sculptors.

Self-taught and coming to the plastic arts relatively late in life, Tom made his reputation with large-scale works in timber, stone and steel. He worked by preference with locally salvaged timbers and granite, and found metal objects from the surrounding farms. In his hands they became mythological beings and semi-abstract explorations of form and texture.

Tragedy visited Tom’s life in 1999, when the wooden yacht Banshee, owned and crewed by Tom, his wife Christina and daughter Freya, sank in a storm off the west coast of Tasmania near Strahan. The bodies of Christina, 43, and Freya, 15, were never recovered.

An inquest cleared Tom of culpability in the accident, caused by collision with an unidentified semi-submerged object, possibly a shipping container, which stove in the hull of the Banshee below the waterline, resulting in her rapid sinking.

The sudden loss of his family profoundly altered Tom’s course in life. Giving up a successful career as a Melbourne solicitor, he moved to remote Silver Creek in Victoria’s High Country. There he became increasingly reclusive. He sought solace in sculpture, which became a full-time occupation as his reputation grew.

The title ‘Banshee’, given to the central piece of this exhibition, is believed to allude to Tom’s vessel of the same name.

Tom drowned in a freak flood at his home on Silver Creek in March 2019. A dam wall upstream of his creekside property burst after days of heavy rain, sending a wall of water and debris downstream. Tom’s house was demolished and swept away in the torrent.

Tom’s workshop and studio, containing the pieces ‘Banshee’ 2019, ‘Solace’ 2018 and ‘Remorse’ 2018, which form the core of the present exhibition, escaped the flood without damage.

Banshee 
Manna gum and steel
2019

Tom O’Malley’s final piece, ‘Banshee’, is considered the pinnacle of his artistic achievement.

It depicts an imaginary female figure, alluding to the banshee of Irish mythology. A banshee (Irish bean sí, woman of the fairy mound) is a female spirit who foretells the death of a family member by wailing or keening.

Tom indicated that the work may also reference the Aboriginal solar goddess Gnowee, who searches daily for her lost child.

The work stands 3.5 metres tall and weighs 5 tonnes. It is sculpted from a single piece of manna gum. The base is constructed from found steel objects.

I was privileged to meet Tom in the weeks before his death. He discussed the execution and meaning of ‘Banshee’. In his notes, salvaged from the flood which destroyed his home, Tom referred to the sculpture as ‘an avenging angel’.

We may speculate that this unnerving, restless work embodies Tom’s feelings of guilt for the death of Christina and Freya, wholly unjustified though these feelings were, and his desire for atonement.

Nathan Price, Senior Curator

THE END

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