But in an age when a culture first looks to politics and ideology to examine itself...
the material facts of life, the organic and concrete forces that shape us, are overlooked...
Our creaturely existence is registered, measured, discussed and represented in increasingly abstract terms....
Tim Winton (from ‘The Island Seen and Felt: Some Thoughts about Landscape’ in Robert Manne’s The Best Australian Essays (2014)
Tim Winton’s musings on the power of the Australian landscape versus our tendency as humans to see ourselves in increasingly abstract terms brought to mind the kind of childhoods that artist Geoff Bromilow and myself, and many of our generation (and previous generations) experienced – particularly in Australia. Mostly, we lived our childhoods outdoors. After school, we went straight outside and played in the park, the bush or at the beach until dinner time. On holidays, we lived outside virtually the whole time playing on the swings and slippery dip at the park, building cubby houses, going for bushwalks, riding pushbikes and so on (and virtually all unsupervised by parents). By contrast, twenty-first century children spend much more time indoors engaged in technological activities which, while they increase fine motor skills, have a deleterious impact on the development of gross motor co-ordination.
In late 2014, wood sculptor Geoff Bromilow began working on various new projects that were part of a movement to entice children outdoors and to make children’s play spaces more natural in feel. Research across the world has shown that unstructured outdoor play is fundamental to a healthy childhood. With evidence that Australian children are spending less time in nature than at any other time in history, concern has evolved into the ‘nature play’ movement which aims to reconnect children with sensory activities in the outdoors.
Kathryn Pentecost: Geoff, how did the work on creating sculptures for greening children’s play spaces, come about?
Geoff Bromilow: Architect Peter Semple was interested in getting local artists involved in making creative play spaces, using less conventional, more nature-oriented and interactive sculptural elements. He approached me via email to see if I was interested.
KP: Are you aware of the research that underpins Semple’s idea?
GB: Yes – that children thrive by playing in more natural environments and that this can lead to better learning outcomes.
KP: What exactly had you been commissioned to supply?
GB: In one instance, I was to supply redgum logs seats and tables; in others, Australian animal sculptures, such as echidna, wombat, dolphin and lizard totems. These were to be supplied directly to a company called Climbing Tree, run by Simon Hutchinson – who had made links with various schools.
KP: For which schools did you create the artwork?
GB: The first place was Brighton Primary School, which I had attended myself many years ago. Later, I created work for Grove Kindergarten in Eastwood, Our Lady of La Vang – specialist education facility for students with intellectual disabilities – and West Lakes Shore Primary School.
KP: Tell me about the process of creating the outdoor furniture and artworks.
GB: There were several stages to the process, the first of which was sourcing the wood. In order to obtain Class #1 durability timber, I needed to find river red gum, which is the only species in South Australia that is suitable for the work because of its potential longevity for in-ground structures. This was particularly important for the outdoor furniture for the La Vang school.
The redgum mainly came from a property at Kuitpo Forest. I was lucky to get it, as this quality of wood is scarce. Sourcing the wood often takes up time and energy.
For the animal sculptures, I used wood from the cypressus species because of its termite-resistant quality. In addition, I coated the artworks (and the furniture) with an appropriate treatment so that the durability would be extended under the hot sun and sometimes harsh climatic conditions of South Australia.
KP: What was your inspiration for the sculptures?
GB: I was actually given quite specific briefs for the various commissions. I like this way of working.
In the case of the West Lakes Shore school, for instance, I was asked to create something with a ‘sea theme’ and I had some latitude in choosing how to respond. Originally, I suggested three sculptures: a dolphin, a starfish and a tortoise, but budget constraints meant that I only made one full-sized dolphin.
At La Vang school, because of the special needs of the students, the brief specified the furniture had to be well-rounded off and securely anchored in the ground within concrete footings. One of the blocks of wood was to form the basis for a metal drum for the children.
At Brighton Primary, where I created the first sculpture, my echidna was actually completed in front of an audience at a ‘nature play’ open day organised by Simon Hutchinson of Climbing Tree. In South Australia, as in several other states, there is actually an organisation entitled Nature Play that is a not-for-profit organisation supported by the Government of South Australia. (link?)
At Grove Kindergarten, the Director was open to my suggestions. I created a huge egg that sat on a nest of sticks; a wombat for the kindergarten students and a lizard for the early learner’s play area. This was the most fun!
KP: So Geoff, what have you gained from the experience of creating these works?
GB: Well, I guess I realise the importance of instilling the notion of creative play (from an early age), in the next generations of children. This will surely lead to a more vibrant community of people in the future. By encouraging a sense of adventure and respect for the natural world around us, I think we will be developing more artists and environmentalists. We’ll also be encouraging the development of people who are in touch with their physical selves and who have an inbuilt sense of fun.