Bodja Chairs – Mike Epworth

Reject the factory, reject the road, reject the shop.

 

I feel exhilarated when I pick up my drawknife. It connects me to my tradition, to my ancestors, this two handled blade, used to slice timber and shape wooden components. It is the foundation of my practice. With a small vice and a backpack we go anywhere, carving under trees, by the beach, on top of mountains, next to creeks, by the remains of abandoned huts. Sometimes Bodja chairmaking workshop participants join me to feel the freedom of en plein air, of not being bound to the factory. I use only salvaged timber pulled from structures; material connected to human memories and experience. The first floorboard of a home’s threshold, seen but not noticed a thousand times until it becomes part of a seat. The rake handle my Grandfather gripped for 30 years; the top of the family table that generations talked around, now broken. I go to where these materials are from to make the chair components. I go there to understand where that floorboard fitted in, to see where my grandfather raked, to sit where the table sat. The smells, the sounds, the landscape that folded the memories, become embedded in the chair’s creation story. A story that can continue to be told into the future as the chair gains its own identity in the lives of its custodians. This is a Bodja chair. A chair that rejects the road. A crafted work formed of the experiences of life and its received stories, where the chair’s custodian/owner becomes part of its creation via connections to the salvaged timber or through drawknifing its components at a Bodja chairmaking workshop. Here skills and technologies, both ancient and present, blend to create something of the now, something new from the past. Arcane woodworking skills meet the smart phone and social media to form an alternative to the shop where maker and end-user can truly co-produce and collaborate to create object and meaning.

I only make chairs and I only make chairs that belong to the Jimmy Possum tradition; a tradition started in a hollowed tree near Deloraine, Tasmania in the early 1880s by a chairmaker known as Jimmy Possum. Possum may have been a refugee from the Irish famine, an ex convict or an Indigenous man. The mystery surrounding this enigmatic artisan will probably never be resolved. Perhaps it’s better if it remains ambiguous. In these fraying times, this inclusive myth of an Australian everyperson, talks to a modern, pluralist possibility. According to local stories, during summer Possum would swap his chairs for rations or grog from his factory-shop-tree. In the harsh Tasmanian winter he would trade a chair with local farmers to stay in their sheds. Many of these traded chairs are in major Australian and international collections and galleries. In his later days he befriended a young man named William Larcombe and taught him how to make his chairs. William then taught his nephews who in turn taught their sons, grandsons and friends. From the 1890s to the 1950s, possibly 15-20 chairmakers from around the Deloraine district made variations of the Jimmy Possum chair, all the time referring to them as Jimmy Possum chairs. In the 1970s antique dealers rummaged through sheds and chook-houses to find around 400 survivors. Some stayed in Deloraine, but most were whisked away to the ‘mainland’ and beyond. Bodja chairmaking workshops seek to revive and maintain this tradition of chairmaking and the tradition of sharing the knowledge to make these chairs. Several workshops a year are held at Deloraine, the home of the tradition.

 

I am a chairmaker of 36 years, my family tradition of making bush furniture goes back to the First Fleet –  eight generations of being handed down grandfather to grandson, starting with the convict, Anthony Rope. Rope found a dead goat near the brickworks where he was assigned and took it back to his newly built hut. He and my 5th great-grandmother used it in a sea-pie for their wedding feast and were charged with the hanging offence of stealing food – the said dead goat. The May 24, 1788, transcripts of the trial record a bed that his soldier friend slept on at the event, the first mention of a piece of furniture made in Australia. This could mean that Australian vernacular furniture and my family tradition are unlikely candidates for the oldest Euro-Australian cultural tradition. Jimmy Possum chairs are the exemplars and embodiment of this bush furniture heritage. Bodja chairmaking workshops invite all who are interested to be part of this living tradition.

 

Bodja chairmaking workshops have 3 participants for 2 or 3 day events mainly over weekends. These are held throughout the year at a variety of venues and festivals or at our place near Mt Coolum on the Sunshine Coast. At the beginning of the workshop, participants are presented with an assembled chair. They then learn to carve components, preferably from timber they have brought along, starting with back rungs, then legs, and finally the headrest and arms. Each component made replaces one from the assembled chair, and at the end of the workshop most of the chair, if not all, of it is made by the participant. The important thing is that they take a chair home, not a pile of sticks. The take-home chair can act as a reference point for future chairs the participant may want to make for friends and family, as so many have already done. This sharing and gifting of chairs is a source of great satisfaction to me, reviving the Deloraine Jimmy Possum chairmakers’ community focus that ignored the factories, roads and shops of their times. These workshops can be booked through the Bodja Chairs Facebook page.

 

My partner Bronwyn, a photographer and graphic artist, and I are working on a book, exhibition and documentary about the tradition. We also run the Jimmy Possum Appreciation Society which has lots of great shots Bron took (and some not-so-great shots I took) of historical chairs, as well as an image of what may be Jimmy and his famous tree.

 

Mike Epworth, PhD.

Contact Mike on the Bodja Chairs Facebook page.

 

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