Australian politics, society & culture

Share

The pursuit of usable beauty

Damien Wright & his table

Cover: April 2009April 2009Long read
 

Every so often, Damien Wright will down tools to work on his computer, answer emails, update files. It's OK. He can do it. For a day, anyway - maybe two. Then his back will begin to ache, his eyes to tire, and he will grow ever so slightly nervous. He struggles to explain how he became, without a minute's formal training, perhaps Australia's most successful solo woodworker: "I just figured it out, really. Turned out I could do it." But he understands why he perseveres: "Emotionally, I need it. It answers a need in me ... to make."

Wright is speaking in his workshop, in Melbourne's inner north, and proving difficult to interview. Not because he is inarticulate - on the contrary, he speaks with unfaltering adamance. But he is visibly restless. He drops into a rocking chair. He moves to his office. He ascends a ladder. He orbits three giant slabs of walnut on his bench, appraising them with eye and hand, thinking aloud about the trend in craft to separate design and manufacture. "I can't make that separation - which commercially is to my detriment," he explains. "I design as I make and I make as I design, and I think if you separate them then you stop adapting to the timber, which you learn to read in the way you learn to read anything." He pauses, peering into the walnut with a half smile: "I see stuff in this that's just wicked."

In February, one of Wright's most ambitious projects entered the service of another ambitious project: a bar table for the new Koori County Court in Morwell, in the Latrobe Valley. Around it will be tried Indigenous offenders, in consultation with Aboriginal community and family members - a model that has slashed recidivism rates in magistrate's courts, although until now untested in an Australian court of this seniority. The Victorian country town is a world away from justice's highest counsels, the courtroom's picture window framing the eight smoke stacks of the Hazelwood power station. Yet at the inauguration, last November, the table was the showstopper: simple from a distance, intricate up close, caressed by guests with furtive delight. "People walked in and just went ‘Wow,'" says the County Court's CEO, Evi Kadar. A DVD showing scenes from its making was watched in quiet obedience. So that was how they did it?

This is how.


It was a chance commission. Four years ago, Kadar's predecessor, Neil Twist, was out for a walk and stopped at a window to admire a vase. It was the window of a factory front behind which Damien Wright had his workshop. Twist and Wright got to talking: Twist was looking for a bed; Wright offered his services, and crafted a frame of laminated sassafras and silver wattle.

In September 2006, Michael Rozenes and Andrew Jackamos of the Victorian Department of Justice's Indigenous Issues Unit convened a conference at the Koorie Heritage Trust, at which judges, corrections officers and tribal elders considered a Koori County Court. Rozenes argued that the idea needed some sort of physical form; Twist offered Wright's name. As it happened, an example of Wright's craftsmanship was readily to hand: four years earlier, he had made a new lectern for Courtroom One of the Federal Court.

The lectern was of a unique wood: ancient red gum, from the Murray of 10,000 years ago. This provenance had appealed to Chief Justice Michael Black, who explained at its first silking ceremony: "It is symbolic of the ancient land that we share and it is also symbolic of the excellence to which we all aspire in our respective callings." Exactly, concurred his fellow judge. "You walk into Koori courts at magistrate's level, and the bar tables are inconspicuous," says Kadar. "Here, the table was in the budget from the beginning. Although we weren't sure what, we wanted something really special."

Still, the commission almost did not proceed. By the time Wright came to meet the project manager and architect, a month later, the deal had somehow changed. Neither was interested, nor really understood, the ancient red gum. They wanted a straightforward table of American oak, a plantation wood favoured for its connotations of sustainability. Wright sighed. "I said, ‘Look, this isn't for me. I can direct you to a good joiner, but this isn't what I'm interested in.'" He rang Twist to extricate himself from the project. Twist wouldn't let him go.

Neil says, "OK, what would you do?" And because I'd been thinking about it, I came out with it straight away. I said, "I'd make a 4.5-metre ancient red-gum table. Jet black. So that everyone who came into the court had to acknowledge what it was: 10,000 years old. So that a place that's all about protocol and precedent contains an object 8000 years before the idea of common law. That acknowledges this is an ancient place, but also one that needs to be rearticulated, and to defer to the hierarchies of the court." Neil says, "That's exactly what we want. Let's start again."


Wright is fond of saying that he "lets the wood do the talking" - this wood had a lot to say. The simple designation ‘gum' harks back to Cook's naming of Botany Bay in recognition of "the great quantity of plants" visible from the Endeavour, including trees exuding a "reddish gum". "Most of the trees were gum trees," noted Joseph Banks soon after, fusing the words forever.

The river red gum, Eucalyptus camaldulensis, embodies the confusion of European templates laid across an uncharted, untamed land. The genus Eucalyptus was compounded of the Greek eu (well) and calyptos (covered) by Charles Louis L'Héritier de Brutelle, a French magistrate and amateur botanist; the species camaldulensis lining the Murray was first described by Frederick Dehnhardt, chief gardener of the Naples Botanic Gardens, and named for the Camalduli monastery.

The particular red gum exercising Damien Wright had a tale both more ancient and more recent. In 1990, samples of a dark, damp and fibrous wood posted to Museum Victoria landed on the desk of the geology professor Jim Bowler. For years, great quantities had been set aside and burned at CSR Readymix's Wodonga quarry, where it was regarded as a nuisance.

Bowler is best known for discovering, 40 years ago, Australia's oldest human remains, near Lake Mungo in south-western New South Wales; a richly imaginative scientist, he lists his recreation in Who's Who as "contemplating the mysteries of the cosmos and my place in it". Now he contemplated the mysteries of this wood. Microscopic examination of thin sections revealed its red-gum structure; radiocarbon dating placed its age at up to 10,000 years. Sea levels then were far lower; the Murray, far more seasonal. At summer's end it barely flowed at all; during the spring thaw, it roared with snow melt, three or four times the volume of today, sweeping along gravel shed by the mountainsides. The water's acid content preserved fallen trees entombed in this gravel by preventing the build-up of decaying bacteria. Instead, the accreting iron and silica ebonised the red gum, bringing it to a stage preliminary to fossilisation, although it remains recognisably wood when disinterred, dried and ignited: despite being up to 98% water, it smoulders smokily, like peat.

Having opened another window on Australia's prehistory, Bowler was keen to pull something through it, proposing that the museum market craft objects of ancient red gum. "It is that concept of touching something so full of the memories of the most important and iconic of our rivers," he says. "The wood speaks to you of its own extraordinary history." But Bowler picked a bad moment in his state's life cycle - after the VEDC and Tricontinental fiascos, Victoria was getting out of businesses rather than into them, and his attempts to go it alone were abortive. Until he met Kelvin Barton.


Kelvin Barton's family has farmed cattle on about 400 hectares near Wodonga for seven generations. His father, 88 but still spry enough for six hours in the saddle, lives next door; a first grandchild is on the way. Barton himself is 58, although a spade-like white beard makes him seem older, and first impressions are of a dour, taciturn man. In fact, he is a serial enthusiast for manual labours of all kinds. At 20, he paid $200 for a Land Rover with a broken gearbox. Despite having no training, he repaired it by following a manual, then drove round Australia. He essayed photography and built his own darkroom; he tackled leatherwork and went in search of the country's dwindling community of whip plaiters. Each old plaiter thought he was the last - they would hastily cover their work when Barton visited. Gradually, however, he earned their trust and assembled Australia's largest private collection of stockwhips, and in 1992 helped found the Australian Whip Crackers and Plaiters Association, which now oversees a national championship.

Even then, Barton was running headlong into his next enthusiasm. He wished to craft some red-gum kitchen benchtops from disused railway sleepers. Despite Barton not owning a single hand tool, the expense of having the timber milled convinced him he could do the job more cheaply. He began accumulating second-hand machinery: a jointer in Bacchus Marsh, a thicknesser in Swan Hill ... Modern joiners wanted gear with computers; Barton was happy with winding handles and big old-fashioned bearings - stuff going for a song. To dry timber, he bought an insulated shipping container from Wreckair and installed an air-conditioning unit, circulating fans, a dehumidifier and a tray on rails. Unimpressed by quotes for laying the concrete slab for his workshop, he paid $500 for a clapped-out tip truck and gouged the gravel from the river himself; the slab is now snug beneath an eiderdown of sawdust.

Barton started gathering timber - and hasn't stopped. "That's the trouble," he says. "I've probably got enough to last me a lifetime, but I like it so much I keep buying more." He patrols the region like an arboreal vigilante, collecting trees going under the axe, trees felled in storms, trees hit by out-of-control cars; brigalow, gidgee, beefwood, stringy-bark, peppermint, yellow box, apple box, red box and, above all, red gum, whose resilience, density and range of shades he extols endlessly. About pressing a tree into something useable, there is also an epic quality. To enter Barton's showroom, you walk beneath two towering, 25-tonne red-gum slabs, once part of 40-metre trees wrested by excavator from the Mitta Mitta River flats. When Barton taught himself joinery, began making tables and chairs, and took on a couple of apprentices, he felt a little like those ageing whip plaiters he had once sought out, preserving a lost skill. "The kids at TAFEs these days know nothing about wood," he says. "They'll use MDF for cabinets, laminex or granite for benchtops: there's a whole generation of cabinetmakers growing up with no contact with wood."

The ancient red gum to which Jim Bowler introduced Barton, through mutual friends, was very much to his taste. With his ersatz kiln, he was already equipped to undertake the delicate task of reducing its water content from supersaturation to about 10% without inducing undue cracking; he had even worked out a way to ascertain wood's equilibrium by cooking chips at intervals in an ordinary microwave oven until they weighed as much before as after, indicating stability. And gradually, it began paying off. What started as an indulgence became Barton Timbers, a business that not only allows him to eke out a subsistence income on a property that has had five years of drought, but links him to a network of loyal clients who have become friends, like Damien Wright. Barton speaks of him with affection, and deep regard. "Damien?" he says with emphasis. "Damien is a true craftsman."


Growing up, Damien Wright became conscious of a galling cultural divide. "Clever" children read books; the rest were expected to work with their hands. Except that this didn't square with home life. Wright's father, George, was one of ten children, most of whom worked in Mackay's Farleigh Sugar Mill. Although George was the "black sheep", becoming a schoolteacher, he loved making and repairing things. "I wasn't particularly good," he says. "But I liked having a go." His mechanical rite of passage paralleled Kelvin Barton's. One day, George found himself beneath a second-hand Land Rover attacking a broken axle, having prepared for the task by reading a manual. He mused momentarily: "I'm about to start something that I have no idea whether I can finish." But he did.

Damien struggled at school until his last two years, when he suddenly discovered reading, with a preference for the pith of Hemingway and Steinbeck. Abruptly deemed "clever", he segued into a double major in history and politics at Melbourne University. But his chief pleasure was football, which he played for Port Melbourne, and on graduating he took labouring and gardening jobs with the Education Department - at least, until Jeff Kennett's top-to-bottom restructuring left him suddenly out of work.

By now, what to do hardly mattered; it simply had to be something. While surfing at Morgans Beach, he and his girlfriend, Clare, had begun collecting driftwood, which Wright had a knack for turning into simple tables and boxes. Now, he started buying old tools in flea markets and op shops, and executing commissions in recycled timber for friends. "It wasn't serious," says Clare. "Just a way of keeping off the streets." When the couple travelled round Australia 15 years ago, however, they met a number of furniture makers, including Glen Holst at Bridgetown, on the Blackwood River. "He had this big workshop with his kids running round," Clare recalls. "Damien started to get excited because he could see there was a future in this."

Who would teach him to be a craftsman? While he and Clare were on America's West Coast after their marriage, Wright was inspired by the examples of Sam Maloof, whose famous chairs have rocked presidents Carter and Reagan, and James Krenov, founder of the College of the Redwoods woodworking school. But the couple also wanted to come home to have children - Wright would just have to teach himself. When they rented in West Brunswick, Damien obtained the shed behind next door's newsagency as a workshop. He also acquired a shed at Wandong, an hour from Melbourne on the Hume Highway, in which he began stockpiling wood. And when he broke his hand while captaining North Ringwood in the Eastern District Football League, that was it - no more football. Figuratively and literally, his life was in his hands.


It sounds routine: a man in a shed making furniture. But at the degrees of quality Wright has achieved in the last decade, which have included commissions for the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne's Immigration Museum and scores of private clients, it makes him a veritable freak. In an arts-and-crafts establishment jangling with MAs and PhDs, he has no formal instruction; a thickset 83 kilograms, he looks more a tradesman than a sensitive aesthete. In Wright's six years on the board of Craft Victoria, his direct manner and instinctive suspicion of the high-falutin' offended milder souls. "Damien speaks like a bloke," says his friend Kevin Murray, then the association's executive director. "He doesn't talk about new baroque or post-photography. He likes to get everything out on the table and discuss it. It's like someone just walked in off the street and wants to start an argument."

The bluntness, the Puritanism, remains. Wright detests the self-marginalising definition of ‘fringe': "I won't define myself as ‘on the fringe'; I won't be a fringe player. I want to be right in the guts." He was irked by the art-for-art's-sake apologetics of the Henson affair. He is uneasy about the mechanics of self-promotion, and has never quite got round to establishing a website. He is a slapdash businessman, hopelessly behind in his book-keeping. There is just his wood, his hands and a long list of taboos: only organic finishes, only homemade veneers; no computers for design, no hardware for convenience.

There's a whole stream of joinery completely dependent on what I'd call techy stuff - from screws to mechanical drawer-sliders to cam-lock fixing devices. It's about the industrialisation and standardisation of cabinetmaking. It has its place. But I'm making handmade things, so my solutions are handmade. 

I know makers who are excited by it, love a new gizmo. I just don't. I don't like touching metal. I don't trust the fittings in the long term. It doesn't suit the way I problem-solve, or my designs. I think the techy approach ends up dictating the design. Computers do the same. They allow designers to conceive things that have a cartoon relationship to gravity. That can be liberating but it just gives me the shits. To me, it's all about how it feels to use. I like the way a solid wooden drawer works - the feel of it, the sound.

"You watch people talking to Damien and they get this look," Clare notes. "You can see them wondering: Which century is this guy from?" And to be sure, the definition of ‘craftsman' today is both anachronistic and timeless; against the grain of a mass-production and mass-consumption culture, while also somehow connected to a set of identifiable and pleasing premodern values. We revel in abundance, but still also in uniqueness. As the economist Thorstein Veblen noted a century ago, "the visible imperfections of hand-wrought goods ... are accounted marks of superiority in point of beauty, or serviceability, or both." For modern elites, argues the New York Times columnist David Brooks, "roughness connotes authenticity and virtue"; surrounded by "rootsy stuff, the reactionary and the archaic", they can be "egalitarian and pretentious at the same time".

The rise of industrial society tugged craft in opposite directions. Those aspiring to exquisite one-off objects began seeking the validation of art: visitors to contemporary craft exhibitions grow used to pretentious and prolix ‘artist's statements', ostensibly to explicate but essentially to impress. Those who craved commercial success were drawn to the fashionable and affluent world of design, which governments in Australia also liked the sound of. "In the 1990s, there arose a very widespread belief that craft was outmoded," Kevin Murray says:

That design was the new craft, that the future in Australia was in designing things, that manufacture was something done in the Third World. And that kind of fits with a Platonic hierarchy, that ideas are what matters, that execution is purely supplementary. That became an elixir for governments, because they could talk about ‘innovation'.

When the Australia Council was founded, 35 years ago, the Crafts Board, representing still-strong state craft bodies, was one constituent. But about 20 years ago, the Crafts Board was merged into the Visual Arts Board, while state craft organisations have been buried beneath layers of jargon: the Perth-based FORM, for example, purports to be "an independent cultural organisation which works to enhance Western Australia's competitiveness and creativity through creative, cultural and social capacity building projects". Now and again, such orthodoxies are challenged. At the 2020 Summit, the prime minister decried the "false divide between the arts and science, between the arts and industry, between the arts and the economy". This inspired Dr Terry Cutler, chair of the review into the National Innovation System, to delineate in a speech last year the "craft of innovation":

The other great cultural divide is between the realm of the conceptual, the intellectual, and the artisan and craftsman. The role of crafts and trades in innovation has been massively neglected, particularly in the important areas of continuing incremental innovation in the workplace, whether that be a workshop, a factory floor, office, or farmyard.

Fine-sounding sentiments - yet nothing remotely similar found its way into the report Venturous Australia: Building Strength in Innovation. And while the vibrant American craft industry has always had a dimension of patriotic expression, the default Left politics of most Australian craft producers has inclined them against overt national pride. "This isn't the 1930s, when the Boyds were adding kookaburras to Murrumbeena pottery," Murray notes. "There is a mindset now that it is not the business of non-Indigenous people to talk about the land. We're part of a globalised, urbanised culture that doesn't have an authentic relationship to nature."

Which is where Wright comes in. Instead of striving to straddle the worlds of art and design, he seeks useable beauty. He sheers away from the purely decorative: "Craft threw up its hands a long time ago and said, ‘We can't do that. We can't work collaboratively.' But craft can't be this radically individualistic experience of creating objects that everyone feels grouse about but which don't work." He views craft as, in part, an act of citizenship. A common criticism of colonial woodworkers is that they privileged ‘European' species, and deemed native timbers fit only for firewood, fences and sleepers. Australian hardwood, born of poor soil, meagre rainfall and constant fire, was unlike anything encountered: the frustrations of pioneers echo in colloquial names for timbers, like ‘ironbark' and ‘axe-breaker'. "Damien turns that all around," Murray observes. "He brings out the value of these indigenous timbers - the ones we didn't want, because it was easier to work in teak and pine. There's a wonder to it; it's like alchemy."


Wright's task in the Koori County Court was to reconcile two cultures with ample reason for misunderstanding: Indigenous society and the justice system. He was helped by two women doing the same.

The County Court's CEO, Evi Kadar, has worked for 25 years in corrections - that polite bureaucratic euphemism for prisons. She has run a women's prison, a juvenile-justice centre and a victims-support agency. She planned Pentridge's closure, and Victoria's response to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody - in that time, indeed, nothing has seemed to Kadar so desperate as the plight of young Indigenous offenders. "The cycle is so routine," she says. "One community-service order will become several, then prison - then there's no way back."

The court's project manager, Rosie Smith, meanwhile, was Tasmania's third Indigenous law graduate. She worked as a judge's associate, then in senior clerkships with the Aboriginal Legal Service, before coming to the mainland when Victoria launched its first Aboriginal Justice Agreement, in 2000. The Koori magistrate's courts she has been involved with have reduced re-offence rates from as high as 70% to 25%.

In Koori courts, judge, court officials, prosecution, defence, defendant, family and elders sit round one table. The judge directs proceedings, but solicits contributions from each in turn - a disarmingly effective protocol. It is a recognition that conventional courtrooms are often experienced by Indigenous people like the airless Townsville chamber in Chloe Hooper's The Tall Man: "a grand wooden box with ultramarine carpet" hung with a "relief featuring a British lion and unicorn". Hooper describes the reception accorded the Palm Island women who attended the trial of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley: "All of them were mothers with lost sons: sons in custody, sons who'd died in custody, sons who claimed to have been beaten by the police. To enter the courtroom they had to show ID, before being electronically wanded, then patted down."

Koori courts still have many detractors. Andrew Bolt decries them as "apartheid justice", "racism ... officially enshrined". In fact, when it comes to arraignment and sentencing, Koori courts are no different to other courts; and, as Smith points out, can be more confronting.

Courts can be a formal and an alienating environment for an Aboriginal person, but they can also hide behind their solicitor, and might end up saying very little. In a Koori Court, they don't get away with that. They are sitting with their family, who they might have brought shame on, and across from elders, to whose questions they must respond out of respect. They are actually much more accountable. At the same time, the elders know the offender rather than only the offending behaviour, and the defendants are able, often for the first time in their life, to talk about themselves and be listened to.

Kadar and Smith first met Wright at his workshop last July. Kadar felt an unlikely kinship immediately. She and her partner of 20 years, another corrections veteran, collect wood and wooden objects - some crafted, most not. She heard Wright evoke the meanings of the ancient red gum; she noted the delicacy with which he held it. "Wow," she thought. "This is our man." Smith then took Wright to Morwell to learn about the court, study the courtroom itself, and meet members of the Koori County Court reference group and Kurnai elders.

The Kurnai have inhabited Gippsland for more than 15,000 years. They were probably the first Victorian Aborigines to see evidence of Europeans, watching the Endeavour sail by in 1770, and the shipwrecked crew of the Sydney Cove struggle overland 27 years later. They were nearly annihilated by first contact. By the middle of the nineteenth century, scarcely 30 Kurnai remained, although more is known of their customs and structures than of most Indigenous peoples, for they fascinated the peripatetic explorer Alfred Howitt, author of ‘The Kurnai: Their Customs in Peace and War' (1880), the first significant ethnography of an Aboriginal community. Howitt was an unsentimental observer, assuming his subjects foredoomed: "In this memoir of the Kurnai, I have occasionally used the present tense in speaking of their customs, when the past would have been more correct." Yet he was also among the first white observers to touch on the ritual significance of handmade objects in Indigenous society, in a detailed appendix about the turndun, a bullroarer carved from native cherry and swung on the sinew of a kangaroo: "The awe with which this turndun is even now regarded by the surviving Kurnai is so strong, that when, on lately meeting two of them, I spoke of the turndun, they first looked cautiously round them to see that no one else was near and then answered me in undertones."

Indeed, the Kurnai elders grasped the table's significance quickly. "The Kurnai still make shell jewellery in the traditional way," Smith observes. "They understand beautiful objects made with care." The ancient red gum was potentially a source of tension, being from Yorta Yorta rather than Kurnai country. But after consultation with the Kurnai elder Lloyd Hood and the Yorta Yorta elder Carl Walker, it was agreed that the migration was not unnatural: relations between the peoples had generally been friendly. To capture the ideas of authority meeting consultation and old meeting new, Wright also abandoned his initial plan for a formal rectangle and settled on an ellipse 4.55 metres long, 1.45 metres at its widest, with a central strip of stainless steel concealing an inset array of electric sockets and phone lines adapted to the court's existing wiring.

Normally, Wright would have spent some time with Kelvin Barton evaluating wood options. On this occasion, the only ancient red-gum slabs suitable declared themselves by size; Barton trucked them to Melbourne himself. Even then, they weren't quite the required length - a problem Wright solved by ingeniously assimilating a Kurnai motif. He happened on a painting by a local artist, Eileen Harrison, that showed a long, thin Kurnai shield with each end bound as it tapered to a point. In imitation, he decided to add sections to each end of the table with the grain at right angles to the rest. Then he went to work.


When his father, George, retired from teaching ten years ago, Wright encouraged him to put in some hours at the workshop. Wright has childhood memories of watching his father erect fences and build chook houses; in their new partnership, father is apprentice to son, although George's influence manifests itself in different ways. The son's belief in Australian wood for Australian projects, for example, echoes an old conviction of his father.

I was very resistant to that notion that the real world is Europe, or England home. I impressed on the kids that we should see Australia at every opportunity ... I didn't like it when characters on British television shows talked about how they would "go to Australia". I used to rail at this idea that Australians ran Australia for the purposes of somebody else, that Australia was a place where you went to get timber, wheat and wool.

It's hard to imagine George railing at anything: he is a man of unfailing politeness, which rather suits working with his son. "He's a great talker, isn't he?" George observes. "Some of the time, I don't have to do anything at work except listen ... my job is just to be a sounding board." Exactly what he means can be seen in the films of their collaborations that the pair began making five years ago. The first shows them making a table from brigalow, a desert timber. The setting is unmistakeably Australian. The cricket is on the radio, the air is full of sawdust, and Wright's boys gambol through the workshop while Dad and Poppa work patiently. Wright can be heard griping about the lack of craft in Master and Commander: "Instead you have to put up with Russell Crowe's psychological predicament. Everyone has to be Woody Allen." George listens. Most of the time, he's a step behind his son, checking and tidying fastidiously. "It's a place I like being," he says. "I try not to do anything to upset that." It's the voice of parental letting-go: "Eventually I won't be there, and he'll have to figure out some things on his own."

Nonetheless, the bar table reflects George in one particular. "Strictly speaking, we didn't have to make a perfect ellipse," he explains. "Oval tables are seldom exactly elliptical. But I said, ‘Why not?' It's an exercise in conic sections I used to teach in mathematics: the formula x2/a2 + y2/b2 = 1, where a is the semi-major axis, half the total length of the table; and b is the semi-minor axis, half the total width of the table." Father and son traced the ellipse with a string from two points on the centre line, then drew a quadrant of the same shape in MDF that acted as a guide for their router. With each day and each treatment, the wood was peeled from its ancient state, coated and polished to a velvety matt black, then docked with the mandated componentry.

Kadar wondered privately if, after all the consultation, the table would be ready on time. Wright made time; although he never let on, Indigenous justice has, for him, an individual dimension. Sixteen years ago, his uncle Dermot Tiernan, publican of the Australian Hotel in the Queensland township of Murgon, was roused by the noise of police attempting an arrest. The Aboriginal teenager was wild, throwing punches indiscriminately; one collected 52-year-old Tiernan as he held open a divvy van's door, knocking him to the ground. The blow was lethal. Wright moved north to help his family, and spent four months pulling beers - some nights in the lounge, generally reserved for whites; others in the bare and bleak front bar, the preserve of local Aborigines.

For Murgon is an old frontier in black-white relations: nearby Cherbourg is the reserve to which the devastated Aboriginal community of Fraser Island was removed, a hundred years ago. In considering the youth's appeal against his manslaughter conviction, Justice Tony Fitzgerald adumbrated his "all-too-common life experience" as "poorly educated, unemployed, angry, aggressive and sometimes violent, especially when intoxicated".

Cherbourg is an unattractive town, and young people living there have virtually no cultural, recreational or employment opportunities; many are bored, and gravitate to Murgon, which is about five kilometres away, where they drink in the hotels and, often, fight; fighting between young Aborigines and white persons is common, and frequently leads to the police charging the youthful offenders, who quickly build up a criminal record, and thus are initiated into a lifestyle which often ends in tragedy, both for the Aborigines and the victims of their violence, which frequently is associated with the excessive consumption of alcohol.

Wright isn't silent about his uncle, but nor is he talkative. He didn't share the story with his collaborators; we had been in touch several months before he mentioned it to me, and then indirectly, seemingly anxious that a personal story not overshadow the principles incarnate in the Koori County Court. It was a commitment difficult not to respect. One day, on the road back from Morwell, he permitted himself some stories of his uncle: his kindness, his whimsy, his very Irish gregariousness. Then he trailed off. "We're all in this together," he said presently. "We've got no choice."


The week Wright finished the table was the week all 35 members of the Koori County Court reference group were convening in Traralgon for a training session in the nitty-gritty of procedural management. One night, they adjourned to watch First Australians on SBS, the episode featuring the story of Doug Nicholls, the Fitzroy footballer and South Australian governor. By coincidence, they had in their number Nicholls' daughter Pam Pederson, an elder of the Koori Children's Court. When the show finished, colleagues prevailed on Aunty Pam to describe her improbably privileged childhood: the weird whitefella food she had to eat, the quaint gubernatorial restrictions on her playtime. Pederson, a natural storyteller, had her audience in stitches, then in tears.

Next day, the group attended the court complex in Morwell, where Wright's table was being assembled. Again, the process was filmed: you can hear a low and deferential murmur as the parts slot soundlessly together, bursts of appreciative pleasure as hands are run along its surface. For a project of this nature, there was a strikingly celebratory air to the court's official launch, a few weeks later. Aboriginal dancers danced. Kutcha Edwards sang. Aunties and uncles circulated sunnily. A traditional smoking ceremony was held, precipitating laughter when it activated the fire alarms. The communal mixed with the personal when Damien Wright spoke. He thanked his Indigenous and non-Indigenous collaborators, his family, and finally his father, at which he faltered, eyes prickling with tears; behind sunglasses, George also choked back tears.

Shortly after the court heard its first cases in February, fire swept Victoria, and did not spare Wright. His shed in Wandong, containing all the woods he had collected for 15 years, went up in flames. It seemed, to an observer, a fearful loss, although Wright was disarmingly sanguine. "Australia, eh?" he said simply. "Whoosh." The last time we met was in his workshop. He was in his apron. The computer was off. He was busy, really busy.

About the author Gideon Haigh
 
×
×