“Lives on the Line” wins at the National Trust Heritage Awards

Celeste Coucke, Clive Lucas and Ann Frederick.









The National Trust Heritage Awards honour projects and people that have excelled in their field.  “Lives on the Line” came first in the “Education and Interpretation” category and was described by the National Trust judges as ” …accessible, poignant and beautiful”.

It was a great team effort and a hugely satisfying public art project, a real honour to work beside Ann Frederick and the team at Transport Heritage & Sydney Trains.  The beautiful short film about the project, made by project co-creator Steve Fearnley, is here:

Lives on the Line is 46 metres long. Over three specific sections the work represents the 8447 NSW Railway men who fought in WWI. By far the biggest section was made collaboratively in community workshops which took place over 8 months. Our best estimate is that around 4500 people took part.

This work has many levels and will mean different things and perhaps trigger emotions in those who discover it. It is our hope that the work is an uplifting tribute that honours the important stories of commitment by the Railway men over these centenary years of WWI

For those who actively took part in making the objects in the central part of the work, I hope they are proud to see what all those thousands of gathered pieces of the one story has become.

For me the most enduring moments were those when the objects being discussed and made in the art workshops provoked personal recollections. Children who responded with great maturity and perception, or with proud proclamations like “My pop was in the War” or, pointing to the familiar Rising Sun insignia: “My grandma has one of those, it belonged to her dad, who was killed.” Whist it was great fun to make the pieces, it was also a serious business- I know that many of these objects were made with the image of an honoured forebear held in heart and in mind. Those stories shared through the tactile medium of clay won’t be forgotten quickly.

The objects that were made in those many workshops are small everyday personal items- buttons and badges and buckles, fragments lost from uniforms or pockets, trapped in the mud of battlefields and still being uncovered 100 years on. Each object is a small parcel of meaning; these are the inanimate witnesses of great courage and camaraderie, of fear, of suffering and of death.

This part of the work references physical man; that which exists in the earthly realm; here is our collective body.  Together these thousands of pieces continue the conversation that was started 100 years ago, when the NSW Railwaymen first went to war.

In the section of the work closest to the forecourt windows , 303 red and purple stoneware tiles interpret the colour patch worn by the Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company. The signatures of those men who were part of the company in 1917 have been reproduced and engraved by hand across the length of this section on the work. In his essay, Trevor Edmonds goes into greater detail about the hugely significant role the A-B-G-R-O-C played in the war on the Western Front. This part of the work has a deeper level of meaning: here we reference the intellect, the mind of man.

In the last section of the work, 1210 starlight points of blue light- the number of Railway men who died as a result of the war- shine from within 6 linear metres of punctured steel sheet. The deeper level of meaning is that this is the part of man which endures yet we cannot touch- here is the ethereal or spirit body.

I know I speak for Stephen as well as the others on our team: we are honoured and proud to have helped create this tribute to the Railwaymen who fought in WWI

The extraordinary level of community participation would not have occurred without the vision and dedication of Ann Frederick. Ann has barracked for and believed in this project from the beginning. The finished work that now lives in the main hall at Trainworks, is I think a beautiful and poignant work; however the greatest outcome of this project is the community outreach; the one- on-one sharing of story that connects each and everyone of us.

Thank you to Susan Conroy from Southern Tablelands Arts- who tirelessly champions the important role artists have to play in telling significant local stories in diverse and meaningful ways.

And thank you to the commissioning organisations, Transport Heritage NSW and Sydney Trains for having the vision to support this enduring ANZAC centenary artwork.


Box Kite Piazza, Bald Hill

At some places, the box kites punch up out of the pavement…

 As the most visited destination in the Illawarra, Bald Hill at Stanwell Tops is a place loved by locals and tourists alike. Wollongong City Council recently completed upgrading Bald Hill to match the site’s significant profile.

In early 2015 I was invited to collaborate with Wollongong City Council landscape architects Andy Goldie and Felicity Skoberne. Brainstorming ideas for potential public art works at such a significant place was an exciting process.

Five potential public art projects were identified, each exploring a different site based narrative. Each had strong design constraints due to extreme environmental exposure and heavy pedestrian visitation. In addition, the art works needed to reflect the horizontality- “the baldness”- of the site. Of the the five potential public art works, three have been realised. Of these three, the central pavement artwork is my design.

Arguably Australia’s greatest inventor, Lawrence Hargrave lived in Stanwell Park in the 1890’s. The pavement artwork honours Lawrence Hargrave, referencing the box kites that held him aloft , 16 feet above Stanwell Park on November 12, 1894. This first manned flight was a world aeronautical breakthrough; Hargraves design for stable wing surfaces was used successfully by the earliest generation of aeroplanes.

The Box Kite pavement provides a focal point that is playful and visually stimulating .

As a meeting area adjacent to both the beloved Mr Whippy van and the tourist bus stop, the space jostles with visitors on most days of the year. The work is mainly viewed by pedestrians and has been designed to be enjoyed at different focal distances, changing depending on the viewing angle.

At some places the box kites punch up out of the pavement, appearing three dimensional, an optical illusion which humorously engages visitors; closer up, the terrazzo pavement is studded with handmade stoneware fossils which reference the geology of the site and are designed to catch the eye of children.

The large scale of the work also makes it visible from the air, extending a visual dialogue to those above, soaring in machines that owe their existence to the historic kites that first flew from this unique place.

Detail: Handmade stoneware fossils imbedded in the terrazzo.

Lives On the Line: NSW Railways Remember

Earlier this year, my partner Stephen Fearnley and I were thrilled to be selected to create a commemorative artwork that honours the commitment of NSW Railway men that served duringNSW Railway men.

“The outbreak of war in 1914 had dramatic impacts in Australia, with large numbers of men rushing to enlist for military service to serve their country. At the time, the NSW Railways and Tramways Department was the largest enterprise in the state, with 45,000 employees. Over the course of the war 8,447 men from the department enlisted for service and by the end of the war 1,210 of these men had died serving their country. Most NSW Railwaymen served amongst other soldiers fighting on the frontline, whilst some were recruited especially for their expertise to assist with operating railway lines for the war effort in Europe. The nature and scale of WWI suited the use of railways like no war before or since, with the war requiring massive transportation in an era where road vehicles and aviation were still too limited. Joseph Joffre, Commander-in-Chief of the French Army during the war declared: ‘This is a railway war… if we win this war it will be largely due to the railways.’  From nswrailwaysremember.com.au

The artwork that we are making is linear in nature and when finished will be 45 metres long. The work explores three themes: The first section references the extraordinary story of the men of the 6th Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company (ABGROC) which was made up of volunteers from the NSW Government Railways. In July 1917 they took control of the locomotive depot and exchange sidings at Bergues Exchange that was supporting the Ypres area on the Western Front. 303 stoneware tiles – one for each member of the 6th ABGROC – are being handmade in the design of the red and purple shoulder patch worn by the Railway Operating Companies. Signatures from a Christmas card the company made in 1917 for the Chief Commissioner for the NSW Railways and Tramways, will be reproduced and subtly incised into these tiles. These tiles also reference ceramic tesserae used in many Federation railway stations.

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The deeper level of meaning of this section of the memorial references intellectual man: here is the “mind” of man.

The second section of the memorial is a collaborative artwork. At a series of events around NSW, members of the general public, as well as railways employees and their families, are invited to take part in clay workshops  to help make thousands of ceramic pieces to be included in a 28 metre long mosaic. We are aiming to make 8,447 objects- one for each man who served- ceramic facsimiles of everyday articles that would have been familiar to the men who served. Buckles, badges, buttons, keys, whistles, coins …fragments of objects that were trapped in the mud of battlefields and are being found to this day. When the work is installed the ceramic objects will appear as  flotsam caught in an eddy; from a distance the work will be a palimpsest of textures, close up the details will be revealed.

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The deeper level of meaning of this section of the memorial references physical man; this is the earthly realm, the “body” of man.

The third part of the memorial made of steel, punctured, as though with bullet holes. Each hole will be sealed with kiln slumped blue glass. The steel panels will be illuminated from below: 1210 starlike points of light, representing the number of NSW Railwaymen who died on the battlefields.

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The deeper level of meaning of this section of the memorial references that part of man which we cannot touch- the ethereal or “spirit” body. 

Over the course of the next few months I’ll chart the progress of “Lives on the Line” with images of the works in progress.


Bee Aware- Native Bee Bells at Picton Botanic Gardens

Three Native “Bee Bells” made by Ana Pollak & myself with community participation were launched as a part of Pollinator Week 2016.

The following is the speech I gave at the launch at Picton Botanic Gardens on November 22nd.   Photos by Steve Fearnley.

As we know, pollination has helped shaped diversity on Earth. Without bees the multitude of flowering plants and fruits would not exist. Understanding that simple symbiotic connection-  Bees=Pollination=Food –  is what pollinator week is all about.  This “Bee Aware” project is unique in that it has synthesised environmental education with hands-on, thought provoking art making. In so doing, the project has increased awareness of the vital role Native Australian Solitary bees perform,  in a world where human activity continues to tip the natural scales out of balance.

Sculptural Bells with hanging native bee habitat of bamboo and Xanthorrhoea (Grass tree)
Sculptural Bells with hanging native bee habitat of bamboo and Xanthorrhoea (Grass tree)

This project has seen Ana Pollak and myself guiding community members in the creation of three “Bee Bells”. Each of the works provides a different type of habitat for Australian solitary bees that we know are already present in the area. The copper clad bee bell, with it’s clay cob substrate,  provides habitat for Resin Bees, Blue Banded bees and Teddy Bear Bees. Of the two terracotta bee bells, one provides a bamboo substrate – habitat for Leaf cutters, Reed bees and Masked bees- and a Xanthorrea or Grass Tree Substrate, which we hope will attract Carpenter Bees.

The copper-clad Bee Bell holds a clay cob nesting substrate.
The copper-clad Bee Bell holds a clay cob nesting substrate.

These intriguing sculptural forms will provide habitat for native solitary bees whilst becoming a focal point which we hope will provoke questions, an impetus for visitors to the gardens to learn more about the important pollination role our native bees perform.

The inspiration for the forms is distinctly “Japanesque” . The Japanese Shinto philosophy venerates the inherent spirit in all nature, whether animate or inanimate. As bees offer a clear example of the symbiotic interconnectedness of all things, it’s no wonder that Bee Shrines – hives that are roofed with ornate Japanese tiles- are present in some Japanese Shinto Temples.

These Bee Bells combine a Japanese aesthetic with observation of the habits of native Australian Leaf cutter bees. Most people have seen leaves in their gardens with almost perfect circles cut out from the edges of the leaves. That’s the work of Leaf cutter bees, who then use the circlets of leaf to line their nesting tubes and to cap off their pupal chambers. In this project, the participants assumed the role of the leaf cutter bees, shaping leaves in copper and terracotta to clad each of the nesting substrates.

Re-purposed hardwood slabs have been used as interpretative signage
Re-purposed hardwood slabs have been used as interpretative signage


Ana and I have very much enjoyed working together on this project, guided by inspirational environmental educator, entomologist Megan Halcroft. It’s been a great pleasure to see our ideas being shaped by members of the Wollondilly community, and very satisfying  to see the works hanging gracefully within this
Casuarina grove. Thank you so much to Susan Conroy and team at Southern Tablelands Arts and to Rob Moran, at Wollondilly Shire Council , for making this project possible. A huge thanks to Podge head gardener at Picton Botanic Gardens, for his enthusiasm, thoughtfulness and hard work getting these sculptural habitats off the ground, and thanks also to Rach, his apprentice. Many thanks as well to the community members who took part in this project- these works belong to this community space because of you. Please share your experience of making them with others.

Robertson Public School children make artworks that celebrate their unique environment

The Art+Environment project at Robertson Public School, which engaged children from Mrs Campbell – Jones 2014 year 3/4 class in meaningful art making, is now installed at the school next to the main entrance pathway.

The three circular tiled panels each represent the unique flora, birds and animals of Robertson- the Yarrawa Brush.

Designs of local plants created by Robertson Public School children.

Through the mediums of charcoal drawing and clay work, the children learnt about some of the unique plant and animal species that call Robertson home. The children then transferred their drawings into clay tiles, preserving their charcoal drawings for all to see.

drawing pittosporum
Sweet Pittosporum


Working with charcoal pushes children out of the comfort zone of texta and pencil. Learning to use charcoal is frustrating at first, but year 3/4 soon learnt to modulate the weight of their lines, experiencing the way a charcoal line can be drawn lightly and finely with a gentle touch, thickly and darkly with a firm hand. Smudging charcoal line is fun and can create the appearance of three dimensions. I was particularly impressed by the drawings of plant materials that the children made. Carefully observing the samples that I provided, they made sensitive observational drawings ; the children’s lines are fresh, strong and confident yet have a naive quality. The finished tiles have the quality of a Margaret Preston wood block print .

robbo kids plant tiles

Like charcoal, clay is a tactile medium. Being responsive to touch, it has a life of its own. With clay tools the children transferred their lines into leather hard clay tiles, preserving the quality of their original charcoal drawings and making a permanent playground art work that they can be proud of.

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It was the confident quality of the children’s charcoal drawings that inspired another project in Robertson- the carved benches in Pinkwood Park.

IMG_4054 (1)   IMG_4067 (1)

“I’m proud to be the conduit for another local community arts project. My philosophy is that moving small grains of sand can make big differences. Few of us have the time or financial resources to make grand gestures, but we can all make a difference by sharing just a little of our time, skills and knowledge.”