Letters Home #9 "Portrait of a Buffalo Boy"

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Letter #9 “Portrait of a Buffalo Boy"

B— is a burly man with a wide gait and steel barrels for hands. His belly is a barrel. So too his chest. And like many men who spend their lives with raw materials, B—’s chest is full of a coarse humour that to some would seem insensitive, but to those with a sense for it is the very softness of his skin. For its well known that men of tools trade in a secret currency of quips and slangs who’s value is measured by the extent to which they draw smiles from life's harshness. A man is rich who can make another man laugh. And in that regard B— is a baron. He is known around town as the Dusty Welder. A name he chose. Its on his business cards and embroidered into his orange and blue workwear. The Dusty Welder travels the country from Ulladulla to Arnhem Land, educating young and old in a trade he loves.

In Gapuwiyak B— trains a group of rustic makers called the MEP Buffalo Boys. MEP stands for Miwatj Employment & Participation Ltd. An organisation that formed in 2013 to carry out the federal government’s Community Development Program by creating paid opportunities for local men and woman to learn service trades and contribute them to community. The men involved are called Buffalo Boys. They are respected and stand tall even with heavy loads. 

I met B— in a spacious, open air workshop strewn with rudimentary inventions. A sofa made from car seats on two short stacks of steel rims. Several buffalos with bodies made of barrels, heads, horns and legs from scrap, a couple of pot belly stoves and a locomotive oven. In the centre an oversized workbench laden with tools and pieces of kit. B— wore a broad grin when I walked in with Mahra (my friend and colleague), to see him about a turtle and a fish.

B— spent many years boiler-making to industry specifications. One day he put down his tools, picked up the little barrel in himself and said something like, “How about it, kid?” Then he turned back to his tools. This time to play.

After some customary lines of comic courtesy we got down to business. I described the picture in my head and B— ran it through a series of cogs and pulleys in his own. He picked up a piece of chalk and started drawing on the workbench. “Okay, what we do is find a big piece —“ He stopped mid-sentence. As if he’d forgotten something and then remembered something else. He turned and said, “Follow me.” 

So we followed him around the workshop, searching for bits of metal to make it happen. With every find his passion and enthusiasm grew. He’d already started working when we left.

Some people grow up inside and outside. Their affections weather along with their faces. Their memories gather in catalogues, they become worldly, sought out for advice in matters of life experience. People like B— have a child forever behind their eyes, for whom an ageing exterior is a daily surprise. They can never be worldly. But they can be wise. Because wisdom is not a matter of experience so much as a matter of perception.

The following week a group of students visited the Buffalo Boys to collect the frames. B— had prepared a few speeches and the Boys shared their work and activities. There was laughter and pride and the kids returned with a new entry in their list of things to become.

Since then we’ve worked around the clock to get these things made. To make the fish I attached lengths of wire to the frame to form a body. Onto that I laid strips of steel mesh. For the tail I used a piece of old fence. Then a layer of paper mache on the front and rear, ready to paint with student designs. The mid section will remain exposed and house the bottom-halves of plastic bottles. Each fitted with a small LED light and a coin cell battery. The turtle is also underway. Mahra is working on it with help from some students. As part of the project we’ve run weekly workshops, staged a pop-up recycling plant and various design studios. Its been a lot of fun and everyone is looking forward to parading our wares in ten days time.

Its tempting to draw grand conclusions from this story. To reflect on the value of community arts and project based learning. To say something about shared visions and the shared responsibility of carrying them out. Perhaps its the educator in me. Craving a lesson. Or the child making affectations. Its tempting to frame things that way. But the wise thing to do is draw only the story and have it speak for itself.

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Postscripts
You can follow the Dusty Welder on his Facebook page.

Future Authoring

This is the five year plan I never wanted to write. It extends into the distance, so expectedly its clearest in the shortest term. It begins with the next 7 months, the most significant period of community service and professional development I’ve known to date. I’m here in Gapuwiyak, a remote Indigenous community in north east Arnhem Land, as a volunteer through Gapuwiyak School for the rest of the year. During that time I’ll run small to medium sized art projects with young people in the community. I’ll also complete the 75 hours of practicum placement I need to finish my Advanced Diploma in Art Therapy. In exchange, Gapuwiyak School is providing me with rent free accommodation and materials. I’m responsible for living and travel expenses. 

The projects I help develop and facilitate will centre around providing spaces and opportunities for kids to hang out and express themselves. I'll collaborate with other members of the community and organisations such as the Gapuwiyak Arts Centre. 

Personally I’m interested in ways that mapping processes can strengthen connections to place and nature. At the moment I’m recording found sounds at specific locations in given geographical areas, interpreting those sounds in a visual language, then arranging (mapping) the interpretations according to their relative geography. The process translates well into collective, project based iterations, that result in geographically accurate representations of subjective encounters with place. In February this year I successfully ran the first iteration in Sydney, with primary school students at Nicholson Street Public School, as part of a broader project to build an orchestra with all 175 students using recycled materials. I’ll run the second iteration with the kids at Gapuwiyak School. Then, having been selected to participate in the Arquetopia International Art Educators Residency in Puebla, Mexico, I’ll run a third iteration of the idea in January 2019. Arquetopia is an internationally established, non-profit arts and cultural foundation with a social scope that emphasises critical thinking through artistic practices. Their academic international residency programs are the largest in Latin America, with an array of contents anchored in a solid structure of collaborations with prominent cultural institutions, renowned experts and notable artists. Participation in the residency program will ground my work in an institutional framework. I’ll meet three times per week with Arquetopia’s academic staff and the project participants will be students from the local University.

That's the plan until February 2019. Along the way I aim to produce written work and a podcast that appeals to an audience of people interested in the kinds of stories and insights that arise from my work. In that way I aim to sustain a unique and multifaceted career as a writer, with a special interest in education, nature connection, place, culture and community.

So, with the support of my loving family and friends I’ll suffer the burden of my dreaming, defeat the troublesome companions that are my weaknesses, rise to meet the best I’m capable of and share it all in words and pictures. If you’d like to read and see them, please subscribe to receive weekly letters and updates using the form in the sidebar (at the bottom of the page if you’re on mobile). 

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Future Authoring, Photo taken aboard Cessna 208(A) en route to Gapuwiyak, 20 July 2018.

Future Authoring, Photo taken aboard Cessna 208(A) en route to Gapuwiyak, 20 July 2018.