In the tiny New South Wales–Queensland border village of Mungindi, Tony McMillan is giving farm junk a new lease of life by turning it into award-winning sculptures.
Story By Sally Nicol
Seated at the snug kitchen table sipping coffee, Tony McMillan keeps sneaking glances over his shoulder to the back door. His body is tense. His large frame dwarfs the dainty kitchen chair. With a guilty grin he says, “We’ll go to the shed, hey?”
“Oh, you live in that shed,” his wife Katherine laughs.
Pulling up a stump in the shed, Tony visibly relaxes and begins to enjoy his coffee. This is his kingdom, where his busy hands turn trash into treasure.
The tin structure bulges at the seams with his ever-expanding collection of found objects. Like seeing shapes in the clouds, the 48-year-old builder and odd-jobs man sees the potential in these worn-out bits and pieces. “I will see a piece that looks like a bird’s beak and just start building from there,” Tony says.
He began his scrap-heap collection 20 years ago. “The bits and pieces I pick up are disregarded as old junk and thrown away,” he says. “I bring them back to life with a new purpose.” His raw and rustic sculptures have transformed his garden into an art gallery. “I don’t sell a lot of sculptures because Katherine claims them all.” “No I don’t,” Katherine begins, before conceding that she loves the work so much she finds it hard to let go of.
Some have escaped the garden. South-west of Mungindi on “Collybidgelah”, Marg Harrison has one of Tony’s pelican sculptures sitting on the pontoon he built over her lake. “I think Tony’s work is beautiful,” Marg says. “It is quintessentially Australian and could easily grace public places anywhere.”
For the past decade Tony has been a repeat winner at the Mungindi Art Show, which is considered one of the premier art shows in country New South Wales. His recycled assemblage sculpture Don’t Shoot caught the eye of the 2003 judge, Michael Downs, head of post-graduate studies at the National Art School in Sydney and an internationally exhibited artist. “It was a stand-out object the moment you stepped into the hall,” Michael says. “No matter where you were standing the bloody thing was looking at you! Seriously though, the sculpture was a wonderful example of a genre of 20th-century found-object sculpture that has its origins in, for example, Pablo Picasso’s Bulls, Goats and Sheep. He used anything around to make very engaging sculptures.”
Michael says Tony’s work utilises agricultural cast-offs and junk in a very inventive and appropriate way. “It’s a comical and ironic comment that Tony has used things that were invented to ‘tame’ the land to describe something wild and pre-settlement,” he says.
He says art that makes you smile first, and then reflect, is art that will keep its value to the public. “There is so much pseudo-serious art around, especially in the galleries of Sydney, so it was great to see Tony’s work in Mungindi,” Michael says.
This story excerpt is from Issue #67
Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2009