Never underestimate Wollombi. Or the people who live there. The town looks like an untouched set from an old western. But it would be a mistake to jump to conclusions about who looks like an extra and who looks like the director.
The thing is, the locals already know that. So when Amanda Lockton moved to Wollombi a few years ago, tired of the Sydney rat race, tired of people making judgements about her, she was comforted to find the change in attitude that came from everyday people.
She was a single mum with four kids, not yet 40 years old.
Lockton is a welder. She's been a tradie since she was a teenager, raised on Sydney's northern beaches; she's climbed towering cranes and worked in road tunnels and everything in-between. And raised four children along the way.
She lived in Pymble for almost two decades. And besides the endless traffic, it was the barriers that eventually wore her down.
"I never fit in in Pymble," she says. "All the posh folk. Bankers. Actuaries. I'm just the one who rocks up to school pick-up in King Gees covered in dust from head to toe. I'm just me. I don't care what anybody thinks."
But she did care. And finally followed her heart and got out of the city.
"I had to get out of Sydney. It was affecting my mental health," she says.
Living on her own property outside of Laguna, she immediately found a refreshing and different perspective. Of course, there's trees and creeks, not cars and people.
But there was something else.
"There's a total mix here," she says. "You can fit in by not fitting in. It's great. In Sydney, it's 'You're a welder, and you're a girl'. Here, it's 'Oh, you're a welder'. The first question is: 'When can you come around?'."
There was something else about Wollombi, too. Lockton had always been interested in art. As a teenage apprentice she had a class that met one night a week at North Sydney TAFE. It was mostly females in the welding group, and they were sculptors.
"I got to see what they did," she says. "I always wanted to ... but life got in the way."
Workwise, the closest expression of creativity came from making balustrades and stairways.
But more of her time was spent doing the hard yards.
It was in that location where the fire was probably the most fierce. It just razed everything. There were no leaves left on the trees. It was just blackened ... Only a day later we were going back through this area. The fires met at the top of this ridge. Imagine having fires come up two sides of a hill and just meeting at the top ... it was crowning the whole way along the ridge. It was a very emotional time.
As she recalls: "On the Lane Cove Tunnel, I was welding up cages for piling rigs in the middle of the night. I had the baby in the car. I had to stop and keep breastfeeding in the middle of the night. That was how I started that job."
She fondly recalls attending the annual Sculptures by the Sea exhibition, even though crowds bother her.
But just staying alive took over.
"I want to do this," she would tell herself, "but life got in the way. Work work work. Pay the rent. Pay the bills. Do the shopping. Get the kids to school."
But a change of environment, and a change of attitudes, meant a change of ways for Lockton.
"It wasn't until I actually moved up here, I went, 'Oh, OK'. It sort of just opened up the creativity I guess," she says.
And she got encouragement. The buzz around the Wollombi Valley Sculpture Festival, a longtime event with a fresh burst of energy, touched her. She made her first-ever sculptures, the bold Lost Languages piece, with local Indigenous words etched into a steel structure that resembles the rock shapes on her own property; and the playful bigger-than-life pairing, Tigar and graf, based on a drawing one of her daughters made when she was four years old.
Both won prizes at the 2019 Wollombi sculpture festival. Lost Languages won the acquisitional prize and is now installed in the centre of town.
Lockton showed up late for the awards ceremony in 2019, still wearing her yellows and her face covered in black soot. Naturally, she became a member of the fire brigade when she moved to Wollombi.
The devastating fires of the summer of 2019 informed her next sculpture. Titled Fire's Edge, it's a single burned tree, a powerful emotional reminder of that summer.
"There is one specific tree I just kept looking at," she says in a tone that reminds a listener it's not buried too deep to remember yet.
"And it was in a place on top of Finchley Hill. I was meant to be out on the truck one day and I didn't feel up to it. The smoke was starting to get to me and I was feeling a biz wheezy and said, 'You know what, guys, I don't want to be a liability. I want to stay back at the station this one day'. And you know, my colleagues and friends in the brigade got stuck up there in a fairly hairy situation. And that was a bit distressing for everyone.
"It was in that location where the fire was probably the most fierce. It just razed everything. There were no leaves left on the trees. It was just blackened ... up that one hill, and just looking at the aftermath of those fires. Only a day later we were going back through this area. The fires met at the top of this ridge. Imagine having fires come up two sides of a hill and just meeting at the top, and it was just ... it was crowning the whole way along the ridge. It was a very emotional time. And not just what was going on with the actual fire, but being around the people at the time, too.
"We ended up having this tight-knit brigade. We were living with each other. On the back of the truck. Life was totally not normal. It was an emotional rollercoaster that whole time."
It was her own freehand expression of that moment, that unforgettable tree in a forest of black trees, that came to life in Fire's Edge. It was a vision done without a single drawing, just an idea.
"I did want to get that out somehow," she says. "And I put that kind of feeling into making that tree. That's what I was thinking about the whole time. How that bush looked after the fires. It stood for everything that went along with it, too."
Fire's Edge won the the Highly Commended Prize at the 2020 Wollombi Valley Sculpture Festival. It was acquired for $23,000 by Winmark vineyard at Broke, which features a stunning array of sculptures brought together by vineyard owner Karin Adcock.
The Wollombi sculpture festival has increased prize money for 2021, including $25,000 for first prize, $7000 for the indoor prize, $5000 for highly commended prize and additional prizes for local, emerging and young artists.
Amanda Lockton turned 40 this week. She is working on her entry in this year's sculpture festival.
IN THE NEWS:
- 24, with a stable job and living in my car: the new face of homelessness
- Newcastle hotels, restaurants crying out for staff as job ads hit 10-year high
- NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian touches down in an electorate looking for the party with a plan
- Chunky Boiz Cookie Co. brings delicious New York-style cookies to Newcastle and the Hunter
- University of Newcastle aerospace engineering degree is flying high
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content: