Duncan Rush is used to adapting.
Originally from Yorkshire, he’s learned to deal with the harsh far-north Queensland sun and the isolation of working on the mines in the Kimberleys.
Since his move to Australia, he and his wife, Melanie, have shifted around every four to five years.
But the rolling hills and misty mornings in the Derwent Valley in Tasmania have stolen their hearts.
“We thought we’d come here for a quick look … build a house and go back to Cairns. It just hasn’t happened that way,” Rush said.
“We’ve been here for nine years and no plan to leave.”
It was a terrible accident that prompted their move down south. While operating a truck on the mines, Rush suffered an injury.
He still lives with ongoing pain from nerve damage.
“The mental aspect of it, [the] ongoing pain is quite hard on me. I don’t sleep particularly well, I sleep in short bursts and then you wake up and your mind is racing,” he said.
After months of recovery and difficult physio, it became clear he had to give up his job.
But by taking inspiration from the stunning natural environment around him and his new community, Duncan Rush found a way to reinvent himself.
The accidental builder
It was always Rush’s dream to build his own house.
He had never built a house, so shipping containers were an obvious solution.
“It’s a unique system that gives you instant structure, you put them together like Lego bricks and you decorate the inside,” he said.
He began working at the local hardware store and luckily, there was no shortage of people willing to give advice.
“I found Tasmanians very good at giving advice, sometimes unwarranted, most of the times helpful,” he said.
It wasn’t long before his home became a local landmark, even used by fire crews as a meeting place during last year’s bushfires.
It did not take long before Rush began working with other local builders.
He now works as a builder and handyman.
From builder to sculptor
The words “tradie” and “artist” aren’t often associated, but for Rush, becoming a sculptor was a natural transition.
“The process of becoming an artist evolved from me making things for my house,” he said.
“I didn’t see things that I liked to buy so I decided I’d make things on my own … and also seeing potential in things that I had as off-cuts and things like that.
His property on the outskirts of New Norfolk is full of industrial-style sculptures made in his time off.
Hanging in the trees is a big, black spider made of light fittings and galvanised pipe while closer to the house is a metal fire ant made of trampoline sides and a hot water cylinder.
“The sunflowers that I make are nearly everybody’s favourite because of the colours, they’re made from light fittings that I found at the tip shop and immediately saw sunflowers in them,” he said.
“I like to see things that other people see as scrap and make them into something beautiful.”
Further away from the house is his “art supplies store” — or, as Melanie describes it, his junk pile — where he stores things from the tip shop for which he doesn’t have an immediate use.
He’s now known in the community for his proclivity toward collecting pieces of scrap which he turns into art.
“I’m quite lucky now that a lot of people know that I sculpt out of steel, so if they have excess of something or something that they don’t need any more, they’ll ring me and say ‘do you want this?’ … and I’ll always say yes.”
Art a form of therapy
Because of his injury, Rush often finds it hard to sleep.
But since moving to Tasmania, he has found solace in the artistic process and its ability to keep his hands and mind busy.
“It helps me at night-time, I often think about the projects I want to do, projects that I have going, how to make things better and it often calms my mind and helps me go back to sleep.”
Rush and Melanie met when she was on a holiday in the UK. Despite having spent so many years together, she was surprised when he started making art.
“I never really saw Duncan as being a creative person, but since his mining accident I feel that his creativity has come through necessity,” Melanie said.
“I admire the fact that he can wake up in the morning every morning with a smile on his face and say, ‘I’ve got a great idea, I’m going to put it into practice.'”
“There’s always a story behind his pieces. And they’re always large … always large,” she laughed.
New Norfolk artistic community finally coming together
Rush is now working toward his first exhibition at Black Swan, a bookshop cafe in New Norfolk.
He said New Norfolk is an easy place to collaborate with other artists because it is such a small place.
“If someone new moves in who is an artist, you get the tap on the shoulder saying you need to meet such-and-such, they’re a such-and-such,” he said.
“I’ve been lucky to work with a couple of other artists around. I’ve got a friend who is a ceramicist — she gives me pieces that I can work into my big animals, often the eyes, sometimes scales.”
The Derwent Valley has always been home to artists, but a relatively new group, Derwent Valley Arts, is aiming to bring them together.
Board member Alexander Okenyo is the owner of Black Swan.
“The exciting thing about the changes in New Norfolk in terms of the art scene is, finally all the artists that are scattered around the Derwent Valley independently creating fantastic works with incredible practices are starting to connect,” he said.
“The opportunities here are vast and numerous,” Rush said.
“I’ve been lucky that I’ve met a lot of people through different jobs and they’ll ask, ‘Do you want to try this?'”
And he’ll always say yes.