Home of the golden fleece

Rosemary Sorensen | Bendigo Weekly | 12-Oct-2011 12.00pm

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Graham Hyslop in his shearing shed "Alisa".
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You have probably seen one in a paddock by a road you’ve sped along in your car in the backblocks. 

Low-slung, rusted iron, sun-bleached timber, steepled like a church, a building of rhythmic functionality.

They aren’t beautiful, woolsheds. So how come they draw us like a fine painting on a white wall in an art gallery, demanding at least a moment of contemplation of their lines, their details, their meaning?

Tim Fischer, who writes a foreword to photographer Andrew Chapman’s new book about Australian woolsheds, suggests that it might have something to do with the history that congregates in the rafters of the big sheds.

He suggests something about our Australian identity when he points out that a woolshed is a schizophrenic kind of place: “It is either full-on with colour, action and movement as the sheep fly across the boards and the wool hits the table for the skirting and sorting into bales, or it is deadly silent in the long months between shearing.”

Mr Fischer describes the woolshed at those unused times as “eerie, unloved and lonely”. 

This is the melancholy, slightly unnerving thing about a deserted woolshed. While one of the best-known and loved paintings in Australian history is Tom Roberts’ busy Shearing the Rams, it is the dusty light and remnants of toil that make Chapman’s photographs so powerful.

“They are dramatically beautiful,” Mr Chapman says.

“You lose a lot of shots because the sheds can be really dark, and the wood doesn’t reflect much.

“But there are so many elements that make them visually interesting.”

Mr Chapman, based in the Dandenongs, has been photographing shearers and the people and places of the wool industry since 1976. 

His first woolshed was “a nondescript tinny in Central Victoria”.

Just as he completed the work on this book, “a labour of love”, he was laid low with liver disease, and almost died. A life-saving transplant later, he is back at work, documenting the landscape and the people of the country.

Earlier this week, he was in Castlemaine visiting friends, and took the opportunity to check out an old woolshed north of Maldon.

“It had pretty well collapsed,” he says. 

“Year by year, the sheds go, one by one. I hate seeing them go.”

Mr Chapman’s Woolsheds ranges far and wide, from an abandoned woolshed on Bruny Island in Tasmania, crumbling into the ferns, to a huge, grand, shiny new shed near Hay in New South Wales, rebuilt after a tornado battered everything flat in 2007.

Victoria is represented by a classic corrugated iron shed in Streatham, an abandoned rusting heap of an old shed in Manangatang, a snazzy little shed with a gabled roof in Mirboo, and Raheen, weathered like a chequerboard on the rolling hills near Heathcote.

He quotes farmers such as Graham Hyslop of Ailsa, at Spring Plains near Heathcote, who describes his 700 acres as “enough to get you into trouble but not enough to get you out”.

He says the response to this and other books about the wool industry has reinforced his understanding that, in Australia, there is a “deep love” and nostalgia for the country.

“I’ve had so many kind wishes, and it’s tapped into a strong well of memories,” he says.

“People have said to me, I can almost smell the wool.

“I didn’t expect it to be such an emotional response, but it’s a beautiful thing.”

Woolsheds by Andrew Chapman is published by Five Mile Press, $39.95.


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