Friday, 20 May 2005

Statuary Friday #9

Ok, here's my project: or perhaps it's a meme: though I doubt anything qualifies as a meme if only one person is onto it. Well, anyway, every Friday I do a different piece of sculpture selected from the vast numbers littered around lovely Melbourne. My only criteria are: it must be outdoors, it must be more or less permanent, and it must be in a publically accessible location. (Suggestions, especially for sculpture in the 'burbs, are very welcome.)

#9 The Fairies' Tree

Fitzroy Gardens, East Melbourne

Ola Cohn, one of Australia's more significant 20th century women sculptors, carved The Fairies' Tree into a deceased redgum in Fitroy Gardens, beginning in 1931 and finishing in 1934. The tree was one of a number of 300+ year old river redgums ringbarked and stumped on the site of Fitzroy Gardens. It has been restored a number of times over the years; in 1977 it was taken down entirely and remounted on a concrete footing, and in 1998 it was cleaned and repainted.

The Fairies' Tree is "A Gift to the Children of Melbourne", according to the plaque. I was taken to see it as a very little girl, and I expect many people still do bring their children to see it. Most of the carving is at child's eye level. Like nearly everything in the Fitzroy Gardnes, it is looking a bit the worse for wear, but the slight shabbiness and quaintness contributes to the tree's charm and friendliness, rather than detracting from it. Working with the natural bumps and lines and hollows of the tree, Cohn carved and painted a fantasia of little elven people - fairies, gnomes, elves, goblins - mingling with a menagerie of Australian native birds, insects, and animals. There is a sugar glider, an emu and a kangaroo, several koalas, snakes, geckos, frogs, and eagle, a wombat, a pelican, and many more as well.

The "fairies" are very European-looking, not only racially, but also in terms of the kinds of folk tales and legends they come from. In this way The Fairies' Tree fits in with contemporary currents in Antipodean childrens' literature that produced things like Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, Bib and Bub, and other of May Gibbs's works, and to a lesser extent, The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay. Like these books, the carved tree responds to the spirituality of the natural Australian environment by bringing it into contact with the social, cultural world where those children live for whom the work is intended.

Cohn actually wrote a book for children about the Fairies and their Tree. The plaque at the foot of the carving reproduced this portion of the book's foreword:

"I have carved in a tree in the Fitzroy Gardens for you, and the fairies, but mostly for the fairies and those who believe in them, for they will understand how necessary it is to have a fairy sanctuary - a place that is sacred and safe as a home should be to all living creatures."


Phantom Scribbler said...

Statuary Friday never disappoints!

Anonymous said...

Excellent, Laura. One more thing I wish I'd seen in Melbourne. F.

R H said...

This is another triumph for you, well done! I've heard of this tree, but never seen it. I don't think it's publicised enough. My daddy should have taken me to see it, but he took me to Luna Park instead. Mainly because he liked the place himself. The toy shop over the road where he bought me a pop gun is now a dirty book shop. How wonderful. A big step up from old style repression.

Ampersand Duck said...

Oh wow, it's an Australian version of the one in London that Spike Milligan got obsessed with restoring! He apparently spent years and lots of money making it look beautiful and then would get manically depressed every time someone vandalised it. I'll have to visit this next time I'm in Melbourne. It looks terrific.

Brownie said...

I think there are fairy trees at the William Ricketts Sanctuary (Healesville? - I went there 40 years ago) and his carvings are aboriginal children. they are very mystical and lovely.

brownie said...

the above is (supposed to be) a link to the carvings of William Ricketts which are easily found by putting Ricketts Sanctuary into Google Images. and they are lovely.
thanks Laura for the reminder of Ola Cohn's tree and for the impetus to refresh my old memory of Ricketts.