How one couple is using their passions to keep traditional trades alive for future generations in Gippsland.
Hidden in amongst the trees and hills of South Gippsland, in the small town of Mirboo North, the busy workshop of local couple Olivia O’Connor and Paul Tivendale are keeping hundreds of years of craftsmanship alive.
“I often get a rush thinking about the history and nostalgia of tradespeople who would have practised this wonderful trade in the past”, Paul muses about his work as a wheelwright, which involves making wheels of timber and steel. On the other side of the workshop, Olivia hand-carves timber rocking horses made to be passed through the generations.
In a world of flat-pack furniture, ever-improving technology and computerised engineering, you would be forgiven for thinking that traditional skills such as Olivia and Paul’s were a part of the past, irrelevant in today’s world. And though both started out on very different career paths, they are nonetheless passionate about their current trade.
“These skills are so important to our society”, Olivia admits, affirming the importance of seeing, “where you’ve been to know where you’re going”.
Considering their different backgrounds, it is quite a serendipitous path that leads them both to where they are now. Olivia grew up on a farm on the Mornington Peninsula, with Paul spending his childhood in the Melbourne suburb Sunshine. Their paths crossed at RMIT, where they both studied Furniture Design and Construction. Following graduation, Paul embarked on a career working for Melbourne’s high-end furniture and cabinet-making companies, but quickly grew dissatisfied.
“I became disheartened with churning out white boxes”, Paul explains, “I then began to think about how I could combine my passions for wood, design, antique tools and all things transport”.
While Paul began his journey, Olivia moved to Sydney to continue her studies with Prop Making and Scenic Art at NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art). In her final year of the course, Olivia chose to make a rocking horse for her masterwork and fell in love with the craft. So, much like Paul, as Olivia worked as a Prop Maker and Scenic Artist for companies such as Opera Australia, FOX Films and the Sydney Opera House, she began to dream of the day when she could make her career crafting rocking horses in Gippsland. But what is it that made Gippsland the ideal place to foster such interests?
“You can’t deny the clean air, open spaces and beautiful scenery to boost creativity and productivity!” Olivia explains. Paul also echoes this idea, “I wouldn’t imagine trying to practice my trade in Melbourne… the area allows me to have the space I need”.
Apart from the landscape, both agree that what also makes Gippsland so special is the people. Both have also been more than happy to get involved in the community, with Olivia running demos at her workshop, as well as the Leongatha Men’s Shed.
“I think it is rare to find as much support and encouragement as I have in my local community”, Olivia states.
Away from Gippsland, both Olivia and Paul have also seen their talents take them around Australia and indeed the world. Paul notes one of the highlights of his career was getting the opportunity to hone his skills in Toowoomba with master wheelwright, Kerry Riehl. Of this experience, Paul admits that “…it provided me with a fire to continue this wonderful trade”.
As for Olivia? Just one week ago, she returned from America where she studied with master carver Mary May and master carousel painter and restorer Rosa Patton as part of the George Alexander Fellowship with the International Specialised Skills Institute. With all this new knowledge, Olivia hopes to, “branch out into carousel restoration and the reproduction of carousel animals”.
Back in Victoria, Olivia and Paul also relish the opportunity to showcase and share their skills with interested locals at the Lost Trades Fair, which takes place every year in Kyneton and Toowoomba, Queensland. Co-founder and skilled Windsor chairmaker, Glen Rundell is himself a former Gippsland local, having been born and raised in the Bairnsdale area. It is to him, and his wife Lisa, that Olivia credits with helping realise her dream of practising her trade in Gippsland. Glen’s passion is obvious as well.
“Once these practitioners of traditional trades are no longer with us we lose more than just the individual”, he explains, “…we lose generations of verbal or unwritten knowledge and practised skills”.
Through the years welcoming in excess of 100 tradespeople to the fair, Glen can’t help but marvel at how some that attend have had the trade past down in their family for as many as six generations. He goes on to say, “That sort of trade knowledge cannot be learnt from a book on the subject or a YouTube video!”
Back in Mirboo North, Olivia and Paul also champion this ideology and encourage anyone with an interest in a specialised trade to explore their passion just as they have.
“The beauty and the charm of handmade will always hold something special over mass-produced”, Olivia declares. Meanwhile, Paul implores others to, “Focus on what you love… you will find a way to make it work… people will see your passion and love”.