Naming Calls – Chapter 5
It is done. I finished her late last night, then poured myself a celebratory glass of single malt whisky. Peaty and smoky, melting on my tongue.
The weather was suitably dramatic. Lightning rent the darkness and thunder cracked. Heavy rain pounded the roof and ponded in the yard. Skipper retreated under my bed to safety.
I dodged the rain to scamper back out to the workshop and savour my triumph.
She is more than I ever imagined. Serene. Terrible. An avenging angel of timber and steel. Not angry, nor even cruel, but implacable.
Well done, Dad. I’m proud of you. And – I love you.
Thank you, Freya. I love you, too. I feel that you and Mum are very close now.
In Memoriam — Tom O’Malley (1951–2019)
Tom O’Malley was one of Australia’s most distinctive sculptors.
Self-taught and coming to the plastic arts relatively late in life, Tom made his reputation with large-scale works in timber, stone and steel. He worked by preference with locally salvaged timbers and granite, and found metal objects from the surrounding farms. In his hands they became mythological beings and semi-abstract explorations of form and texture.
Tragedy marked Tom’s life in 1999, when the wooden yacht Banshee, owned and crewed by Tom, his wife Christina and daughter Freya, sank in a storm off the west coast of Tasmania near Strahan. The bodies of Christina, 43, and Freya, 15, were never recovered.
An inquest cleared Tom of culpability in the accident, caused by collision with an unidentified semi-submerged object, possibly a shipping container, which stove in the hull of the Banshee below the waterline, resulting in her rapid sinking.
The sudden loss of his family profoundly altered Tom’s course in life. Giving up a successful career as a Melbourne solicitor, he moved to remote Silver Creek in Victoria’s High Country. There he became increasingly reclusive. He sought solace in sculpture, which became a full-time occupation as his reputation grew.
The title ‘Banshee’, given to the central piece of this exhibition, is believed to allude to Tom’s vessel of the same name.
Tom drowned in a freak flood at his home on Silver Creek in March 2019. A dam wall upstream of his creekside property burst after days of heavy rain, sending a wall of water and debris downstream. Tom’s house was demolished and swept away in the torrent.
Tom’s workshop and studio, containing the pieces ‘Banshee’ 2019, ‘Solace’ 2018 and ‘Remorse’ 2018, which form the core of the present exhibition, escaped the flood without damage.
Banshee, 2019 – manna gum and steel
Tom O’Malley’s final piece, ‘Banshee’, is considered the pinnacle of his artistic achievement.
It depicts an imaginary female figure, alluding to the banshee of Irish mythology. A banshee (Irish bean sí, woman of the fairy mound) is a female spirit who foretells the death of a family member by wailing or keening.
The work stands 3.5 metres tall and weighs 5 tonnes. It is sculpted from a single piece of manna gum. The base is constructed from found steel objects.
I was privileged to meet Tom in the weeks before his death. He discussed the execution and meaning of ‘Banshee’. In his notes, salvaged from the flood which destroyed his home, Tom referred to the sculpture as ‘an avenging angel’.
We may speculate that this unnerving, restless work embodies Tom’s feelings of guilt for the deaths of Christina and Freya, wholly unjustified though these feelings were, and his desire for atonement.
Nathan Price, Senior Curator
Thank you for reading ‘Naming Calls’. I hope that you enjoyed it. Next week, we’re off on another adventure with Steve Fendt’s Tall and Tiny Tales …