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Campus News : December 2012
DECEMBER 2012 CONNECT :UOW 7 CONNECT: ALUMNI GO FIGURE: LIS FORGES HER CAREER IN BRONZE LIS JOHNSON Bachelor of Creative Arts 1987 When Lis Johnson enrolled in the Bachelor of Creative Arts degree at the University of Wollongong in 1985, majoring in painting, she could hardly have envisaged a career that would see her become one of Australia’s most celebrated figurative sculptors. But at the end of her first year, Lis realised that she had gravitated towards the sculptor studio (and its brilliant lecturer Bert Flugelman) more than the painting studio, and so changed to a sculpture major. It was to be a life-defining decision. In September Lis’ three-metre high statue of six-time premiership-winning Australian Football coach Norm Smith was unveiled outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground – the second sculpture in the Australia Post Avenue of Legends in Yarra Park opposite the ground. It is the latest in a long line of Lis’ major public works on display across the nation that includes a bronze bust of former Prime Minister Sir John Gorton, two life-size Australian soldiers for the Vietnam War Memorial of Victoria, The Great Mark statue in reinforced resin of Alex Jesaulenko and Graeme Jenkins at the National Sport Museum in Melbourne and swimmer Michael Klim at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. The Melbourne-based sculptor has worked on hundreds of other projects, ranging from general sculpting for television and film projects, including feature film The Wild Thing, to an interactive diorama for the Melbourne Museum of the city’s sewerage and other underground services, called Melbourne’s Underbelly. In Wollongong, her works include: 1993: Birds’ Eye View at Bald Hill, Stanwell Park, which celebrates the history of flight in the area; 1995: Illawarra Coalmining Memorial outside Wollongong City Council’s headquarters, of a 19th century miner and a modern miner which celebrates the region’s coal mining heritage and pays tribute to the hundreds of lives lost in the local industry over the years; 2011: Illawarra Centenary of Rugby League sculpture outside WIN Stadium, of an early 20th century player symbolically passing the ball to a young player of the future. Lis says her time at UOW, particularly the influence of Flugelman who remains a close friend, helped shape her career. “I was studying for a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne majoring in Fine Arts, which was all history and theory. I deferred my fourth Honours year because I really missed arts practice,” she said. “The Bachelor of Creative Arts offered the opportunity to study a variety of disciplines concurrently so I drove up for the interview and was told on the spot I was accepted. “I was attracted to the area – the beaches, rainforest, warmer weather and proximity to Sydney. Wollongong Uni at the time felt like a small, friendly campus in contrast to Melbourne Uni, so I deferred and enrolled at the ’Gong. “My major was originally painting, but at the end of my first year I realized I had spent more time in the sculpture studio than anywhere else, so I changed to a sculpture major. This was no surprise to my friends, who said I had always been a sculptor.” She says she also clicked with Flugelman. “Bert had a great teaching style that suited me. He led by example, treated us with respect and had high expectations. We became friends and I have incredible admiration and affection for him still – we talk on the phone and I visit him whenever I can,” she said. “The School of Creative Arts was in its infancy and in a way we felt like guinea pigs. There was a strong feeling that we were part of a different kind of art education. I remember feeling that I had a lot of freedom to experiment and was encouraged to cross traditional boundaries.” After graduating Lis began teaching part-time at the City Art Institute in Paddington (later absorbed into the University of NSW and called the College of Fine Arts). Since then she has combined her work as a sculptor working on public art commissions with other part-time teaching, art sales and supplying three-dimensional artworks to museums, zoos, theatres and the film and television, advertising, architect and designer industries. She has also recently qualified as an Art and English teacher, and is finishing off a Master of Teaching degree at the University of Melbourne. Lis says major works like the Illawarra rugby league sculpture (pictured) take around four to five months for the sculpting and another three or four months for the bronze-casting (using the lost wax method). Each figurative project is typically a major logistical undertaking, starting with quotes and concepts, research, drawings, liaison with the client, design approval, contracts and site coordination. “Then you need to find suitable life models, do your photography, measuring and scaling up, and construct platforms and steel armatures (framework) before doing a model in clay, which takes about eight weeks for each life-size figure.” That is followed by silicon rubber and fibre-glass molds in many sections, casting wax sections, detailing the waxes, creating refractory cores and ceramic shells over the waxes to create the molds, melting out the wax and pouring molten bronze into the heated molds. The shell and core are then smashed out, sections welded together, the bronze detailed in a process called chasing and chemicals applied to create different colours (patination), before a final wax and buffing, wrapping for transport, installation and, finally, the unveiling. Phew! But Lis says she enjoys the physicality of sculpture, the sense of accomplishment when a piece is finished, and the variety. “Every job is completely different. I have learned so much - cuddled platypuses, examined the bottom of elephant’s feet, chartered a helicopter for aerial photographs, been down a coalmine, examined footage of Melbourne’s sewers, experimented with polymers to create the ideal whale blubber, sculpted all sorts of real and fictional animals and characters ... “Because it’s very physical it can be exhausting. I’ve done a lot of work with concrete, and large sculptures where you are wielding a chainsaw above your head for hours. “Although it is a hard way to make a living I enjoy the freedom of being self-employed, deciding how to use my time most effectively. When the work is interesting and going well it is a joy to work 10 hours a day.” NH Lis Johnson with her Illawarra Centenary of Rugby League sculpture outside WIN Stadium in Wollongong. UOW 597 ConnectUOW.indd 7 UOW 597 ConnectUOW.indd 7 3/12/12 11:32 AM 3/12/12 11:32 AM