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.

Letters Home #6 "The Light Side"

This letter is available to listen to on a Remote Voice podcast. Here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Letter #6 “The Light Side"

Watching the sky to the east, it appears as though the day begins when the sun arrives, and similarly, that the moon rises when the sun sets. However, from a stellar distance we'd see that the sun and the moon stay relatively still, while the earth spins between them. Thus, like figureheads on the prow of a cosmic ship - like sea lions lazing on a galactic shore, it is we who turn to the sun each morning, and each evening we turn to the moon. 

I dreamt up that analogy late one afternoon under a purpling sky. What a beautiful image, I thought. Like a proud cat I arched my back and gave a little purr. Then a chorus of birds erupted into song. Like tiny angels. I closed my eyes. It was all I could do amidst the cacophony to keep myself from expecting to hear the voice of God. In the back of my mind a deluded sage rehearsed his reply. Stay humble, he thought, but also measured and assertive. We wouldn’t want God to think that of all the great poets to receive his message, this time he’d chosen one without a spine. Suddenly the chorus gave way. And from the north a sound rippled through the silence towards me. I opened my arms to the heavens, ready to take my place among the ascended saints - then it hit me - like a bucket of cold water - a raucous cackle. A Kookaburra laughing. I felt shame gather in my cheeks and pool in my eyes. Then erupt from my mouth in a laugh of my own. O Kookaburra! I thought, now you’ve seen me naked! And what can I do, but laugh?

In my last letter I wrote my way out of the impulse to start a revolution. Nevertheless, with my feet on the ground, there remained a need for bilingual education at Gapuwiyak School. So I spoke with some Yolngu teachers and organised to run bilingual lessons during my time with the students. They were thrilled. And the balanda teachers I spoke to had long harboured thoughts along bilingual lines but hadn’t the time to know where to start. So in the end, the best response to a grand problem was a small gesture. 

On the day of our first bilingual session, walking down to the lake, one of the elder Yolngu teachers, Kath, took me aside for a word of advice. We’d planned to have the boys build a traditional shelter called a warro. And for the girls to wrap mud babies in paperbark and learn traditional ways to care for the young. Like a big game of 'house'. Afterwards the students would turn the game into storybooks for future reading practice. With regard to the game, said Kath, we should try and make it funny. If its too serious they won’t understand. I didn’t quite know what she meant, but I followed her lead. 

As planned, the girls made mud babies and wrapped them in paperbark. They built a small nursery and put the babies to sleep. But when a curious dog approached, Kath took the opportunity - with a big smile - to pretend that one of the babies had been snatched by a dingo. She rallied the girls and they rushed to the boys, who by then were under their shelter, painted like warriors with chalky clay. Laughing, the girls relayed the terrible news, and together we searched for the baby. It was eventually found. But it hadn't survived. So together we mourned. And next week we’ll hold a pretend funeral. The children can’t wait. Funerals are a deeply significant part of Yolngu culture so it will be a wonderful opportunity to continue the serious task of continuity. 

Comedy has a way of bringing light to the darkness, making some things easier to see. Which got me thinking about a problem I’ve been puzzling over since I arrived in Arnhem Land six weeks ago. Litter. Its everywhere. In a previous letter I called it the shrapnel left by the bomb blast of modern life. Bottles, bags and various bits and pieces line the streets. Many subscribe to the belief that a population accustomed to biodegradability will take some time to adjust to plastics. But watching people walk by huge bins and brightly coloured signs, I'm beginning to think that any ignorance is more likely the turning of a blind eye. Out here the shop is closest thing to a pub. And some of the problems people face lay at the feet of a diet replete with soft drinks and bread. So it could be that picking up litter would mean taking a good look at insidious lethargy and poor health. A difficult task. But there’s a way. 

Next month there’s going to be a big festival in Gapuwiyak. I joined forces with another artist and we devised a plan to use plastic bottles to build giant animal sculptures with the kids, who loved the idea. Then parade them on the night of the festival. To get started we got out some wheelbarrows and turned up the reggae, then danced our way around town collecting bottles. Our good humour attracted welcome attention from the Buffalo Boys, a group of men who spend their time turning scrap metal into everything from bench seats to barbecues. We enlisted their help to fashion the frames. Its become a collaboration. Who knows, perhaps these sculptures will be the good hearted gesture that makes staring down the bottle that little bit easier.

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