Carver Gary Field is a modest man who prefers not to talk about himself. “I prefer to let my work do the talking,” he says.
If Gary’s work could talk, it might say he is one of Australia’s most masterful woodcarvers, a gentle man of patience and skill. It might say he is a nature lover who can see the beautiful wisdom of a seed pod, toss it around in his mind, and use a chisel and wood to reimagine or recreate it. Perhaps it would also say he has thrice made it on the winners’ list of the Wootha Prize, one of Australia’s most prestigious woodworking competitions, won it in 2014, and has been shown in solo and combined exhibitions. And if his work was really up for a chat, it might also mention that he is in demand as a teacher and has even taught in China, where the art form is thousands of years old.
The 65-year-old, from Burnside, has carved for more than 40 years. Although he was always creative of mind, it was a trip to Mission Beach with his wife, Michelle, when he was in his mid-twenties that inspired him to carve. There, they came across works of a local carver, whose organic, sculptural forms were unlike most of the other woodwork being produced at the time. After learning where he lived, Gary and Michelle paid him a visit.
“I can still remember walking up the pathway of crushed coral to his little workshop. He carved everything by hand. His work was just outstanding,” Gary says. “He said to me, ‘If you go down to Gordonvale, you’ll find a lot of timber down there. The mill throws out a lot of timber and you might be able to get some.’”
And that is what Gary did, loading timber onto his trailer between canoe and camping gear for the journey back home to Brisbane.
The encounter gave direction to the creativity that had been in Gary since he was a kid. The son of a builder, Gary spent his childhood roaming the bush near the family home in south-west Brisbane or tinkering away under the house with tools, timber off-cuts and other building scraps.
As a young adult, he tried his hand at pottery and experimented with woodwork, but in a traditional way. By day, Gary worked in graphic art and design, progressing to management roles in print and production. By night, he would carve. “I had a little room under the house that used to have a pottery wheel in it. I made a work bench out of old wood pallets and started carving in there. I started getting some shapes done,” he says.
“It was quite different to what other people were doing because a lot of people were doing woodworking. I stepped away from that and started to carve.”
With no internet in those days, he was reliant on books and magazines to learn about his craft and developed his own style. Gary has always admired the works of American woodworkers and furniture makers George Nakashima and Sam Maloof, but Brisbane craftsman and cabinetmaker Robert Dunlop had a huge influence on him with some wise words. “He said to me, ‘Don’t change your style. Whatever your style is, keep it,’” Gary says.
“That was the best advice he could have given me because I’ve never veered away from what I’ve done. I’ve just created the shapes that I wanted to and they come out in each and every work I do.”
Gary’s work is organic in shape and inspiration. He favours curves and fluid lines. Some pieces are more abstract while others focus on seeds, pods, leaves and birds. He finishes them with a rub of oil and wax, enough to bring out the beauty of the grain without the distraction of a thick gloss.
Nothing is wasted. Small pieces of timber become small sculptures. Smaller pieces still are used by Michelle,
who makes pendants from the timber, shells and more.
The two, who met on Kirra Beach at 17, make a great team, and Gary will often ask Michelle’s thoughts when working on a piece. He credits her with giving him the freedom to pursue his art when they had a young family. “Michelle would get the kids dinner and get them into bed while I’d be out there in the shed, often until 11pm,” he says.
Carving was something he felt he needed to do. “I had to be doing something that wasn’t as stressful as what I was doing during the daytime, and subconsciously, I guess I was working towards what I’ve got to, which is being able to make beautiful things.”
After living and working in Brisbane all their lives, Gary and Michelle moved to the Sunshine Coast nearly five years ago, intending to settle near Peregian, where they had holidayed for years. However, their house-hunting led them to a quiet pocket of Burnside where they found a home with views out to treetops and Gary had a workshop built in the backyard to accommodate the tools and timber he has accumulated over four decades.
His timber stash includes pieces from his original trip to Gordonvale, as well as others salvaged over the years, often on the back of a rumour of a felled tree going to waste in a paddock or a remnant in a shed. Ancient chunks of red cedar, silky oak, huon pine, rose mahogany, white beech, and even the remains of a household lemon tree are waiting to be reborn as art.
Every piece Gary makes is modelled before he begins carving. His workshop is filled with timber, tools, models, seedpods, shells and animal bones – natural finds that are his inspiration.
“I’m no longer looking for what to do. All the shapes are in the workshop and it’s just a matter of finding the time to do them,” he says.
If he can find enough of it, it will be time well spent.