Lara Knight – 29 April, 2019
Scrap metal sculpture is one of my favourite art practices. It saves beautiful old tools and historical artefacts from extinction. It speaks to a wider audience than many galleried artworks. And each artist assembles objects with a different eye.
Andrew Whitehead runs his sculpture practice from the tiny town of Urana in southern NSW but his collations appear all over Australia. Historical figures like Captain Cook, the jolly swagman, and Tom Roberts’ iconic woolshed shearer commemorate our past. New favourites like the sword-sharp iron throne from Game of Thrones poke gentle fun at our present. All bring a moment of reflection to passers-by that is likely to outlast their maker.
Whitehead, a former soldier and mechanic, builds a mighty solid sculptural piece. Fans of his Facebook page can watch steel armature fill with layer upon layer of scrap metal. No inch is overlooked, and all are made in demountable sections for easy transport. Whitehead’s attention to detail with such an unwieldy collection of ingredients is impressive.
We asked Andrew a little about his practice:
It looks like you spend a lot of time mapping out the pose, framework and intersections of large sculptures. Is that how your mind works or have you developed this approach from trial and error?
The sequence and techniques I use have slowly evolved in the last 13 years. The current method is the most economical in time and effort and can be used on almost any sculpture I make in future.
Do commissions come together slightly differently to your own ideas?
Commissions are a refreshing change from the norm. Often, I am asked to build something I would never have done on my own because it appeared too difficult, or was not something I was comfortable with. Therefore, commissions are challenging and also rewarding because they force me to learn new techniques or use new materials.
You’ve won many sculpture prizes over the years. Is transporting heavy works to public exhibitions still a good form of advertising? Or is something working better?
As most of my work disassembles like LEGO for ease of transportation it does not resemble anything other than a pile of scrap metal during transit. So, I get little advertising value from travelling to shows. The most successful advertising is through social media.
How has social media impacted your business?
Most of my paid work is the result of social media. My daughter Camille introduced me to Facebook about 10 years ago and she manages my page. It has produced a constant flow of paid work. It is the act of sharing images of my work to other people’s friends and family that exposes my work to the wider community. Somehow this has made my work come to the attention of private collectors who are not too concerned about the price, only the work (the perfect scenario).
Social media also exposes my work to the demographic who form the backbone of small community improvement organisations. This generates public artwork commissions for rural communities.
The jolly swagman caught my eye about five years ago and is still a favourite. Can you tell us a little of his story?
I have made 2 swagmen so far. The first was for a small community (Boree Creek) who wanted to record the passing of the travelling ‘swaggy’ which was once a common sight 50 odd years ago on country roads. The second was a private commission for the Jolly Swagman Caravan Park in Toowoomba Qld. They commissioned me after seeing my shearer sculpture at Muttaburra in Qld.
The Sweet Briar peacock was a collaboration with your wife Daphne who did the glasswork. Do you think adding bright colours brought different fans to this piece?
In the last 5 years scrap metal sculpture has taken off like a rocket. When I started doing this, there were only a few in Australia doing larger scrap artworks. Now I only have to drive an hour and a half in any direction to find someone with a welder having a serious crack at this medium. Some of my work is now being copied so I need to keep ‘in front of the crowd ‘ with fresh new work.
I first collaborated with my wife Daphne on a peacock in 2013 where she made beautiful glass discs for the tail. We made another peacock in Feb 2019 with more refinements for the Sweet Briar B&B at Coolamon. The combination of steel and glass received a very positive response from the public. I am currently working with Daphne on a ballerina sculpture where she will make the glass discs that will form the leotard and maybe a tutu.
You run a Scrap Metal Masterclass on your property at Urana. I imagine there is an interesting mix of students. How do you feel about training future competitors?
I have run 4 previous scrap metal courses and I will be running 2 more on the farm this year. Most of the students are already established as artists and have their own style and preferred medium. Whilst I can teach techniques, shortcuts and sequences, I cannot teach someone to think like me. Most students do not want to clone my work but rather make unique works of their own. I can help them do this quicker and safer by giving them my construction secrets.
Due to natural differences in the artists’ abilities and perceptions, no two works end up the same. One of the more attractive selling points of the courses I run is the joy of working in a group of likeminded artists where everyone is positive and helpful. At home most artists work alone in their sheds, and often cannot bounce ideas off people who understand the process, so a group environment is very rewarding and produces good outcomes and a cross pollination of fresh ideas.
What do you love most about what you do?
I find the artistic process a logical sequence of events that has enabled me to progress in ability without any form of training or mentorship. How to make something seems an “obvious” path, not hard work.
Being a successful sculptor has enabled me to travel widely throughout Australia meeting interesting people from different cultures and varied socio-economic backgrounds. Art is a language understood by both rich and poor. I don’t have to explain my art to anyone, it speaks for itself. I love watching the public interact with my art: they touch, they caress, they smile, they tell stories about artefacts hidden in the work, they take selfies and show their friends. I imagine I am invisible and the artwork is my avatar.
Where can people see more of your work?
Facebook Andrew Whitehead Sculptures