Principal Sculptor ‘Canoe’ 2014, Remnant Canoe Sculptor 2017
Benjamin Gilbert’s passion for sculptural form began in his father’s Old Green Shed, where a metal table and an antique vice were the tools of his childhood imagination.
“I grew up having a shed with absolutely no rules,” says Gilbert of his early life in Yackandandah, a country town in northeast Victoria. “We made a lot of cubby houses!”
Following his passion for creating things with his hands, coupled with the practical sensibility of a rural upbringing, Gilbert went on to study furniture design, but managed to fail sculpture.
“In the end, failing sculpture was a good prerequisite for doing well as a sculptor,” says Gilbert, who shuns the normal ‘artist’ pretensions and thinks of his work more as a trade. “I like to make new things every day, to repeat things would send me mad.”
He found a home for his work in civic sculpture, which he believes is more about architecture than traditional sculpture, because he has to consider safety elements and ergonomics, as well as aesthetic.
“Saying ‘Don’t touch the sculpture!’ really stinks, it’s got to be safe to play on,” says Gilbert. “I design objects for the young and the old to enjoy.”
He started his company Agency of Sculpture between ice carving competitions in Scandinavia and Russia, which he is highly respected for – an unlikely outcome for someone from rural Australia where ice isn’t freely available for carving.
These days, he is commissioned by architects to design and produce an alternative to the status-quo of civic play spaces. Some of his most well-known pieces are in play spaces around Australia, such as the work he did on the famous aerial acorns made for the National Arboretum in Canberra.
His ‘Humpback Gunship’, which he made sure had its sharp metal edges smoothed in case tiny fingers explored it, was bought by the city council of Arhus in Denmark, with encouragement from Princess Mary.
A slew of awards has followed him throughout his career, including the first in 1997 – 1st prize in the Alvar Aalto design competition from the University of Tasmania to the latest, 2015’s Vic Health Community Art Project.
In 2014, Gilbert was the first artist in the Mountain to Mouth event to create ‘Canoe’, an ephemeral sculpture that was carried by participants over 80km from the mountainous You Yangs Regional Park to the mouth of the Barwon River at Barwon Heads.
“It’s a real delight to do works that are meaningful and part of a much bigger project,” says Gilbert of his work with the City of Greater Geelong on Canoe. “I remember the event having a softness to it and people of all walks of life were gentle with each other and with Canoe – like they were carrying a fragile egg.”
He believes it’s what we do as groups together that really bonds society and lets it grow, rather than individual pursuits, which is why the Mountain to Mouth concept resonated with him on many levels.
“It was a wonderful experience and created a chance for strangers to meet – that doesn’t often happen in our culture outside of sport,” says Gilbert. “People were quiet and respectful, which is rare for Australians as we normally make so much noise and talk a lot!”
He says the original brief for Canoe was something that could be wheeled, was robust and could take on a mythical nature as an object – like a mask in theatre that we know isn’t someone’s face, but represents it.
“The idea for me was for it not to be too easy to carry so that people needed each other to make it work and that it would be okay for people of any height to find their place within the group,” says Gilbert.
At the end of the Mountain to Mouth event, Gilbert’s Canoe was set on fire in a special ceremony. However, now it is being resurrected to create a permanent monument to the event in the You Yangs, a gift from the City of Greater Geelong’s M~M event.
“As a country boy, it’s such an honour to make something permanent for a regional park - to be enjoyed by generations to come,” says Gilbert. “I’ve tied it into the You Yangs with stainless steel bars creating a teepee structure under the canoe, like the sticks the children use in the park to create their cubbies from nature.”
Remnant Canoe is made from stainless steel bars using the same base and wheel of the original canoe. It will be elevated from the ground and be lifted up to provide children with a space to play underneath it.
While his father’s Old Green Shed has been replaced with a sawmill, Gilbert still creates in the same small town of Yackandandah that was the canvas for his childhood explorations.