I HAD only just met John French and he was already threatening to kill me. Well – to be fair – he was suggesting he would have to kill me if he revealed to me the way he created his mosaics. Just moments beforehand I had been marvelling at “Warrior”, an extraordinary mosaic created by John. Up close it is an amazing intricately designed collection of tiny tiles measuring half a square centimetre each. Each is a representation of Aboriginal art. Interesting enough close up, but it is only when you stand 10 metres away that the full impact hits you. A grey bearded indigenous elder is regarding you with a look combining interest and suspicion. How these thousands of tiles have morphed into this wonderful being is beyond me.
If your predilections lie more towards the “cheeky”, another mosaic combines thousands of pictures of fashion models which then morph into half a dozen scantily clad women wearing not much more than high-cut panties.
John has been creative all his adult life but has only recently taken up art. He has a view that creativity expresses itself in so many media and if a person is creative in one way, they are likely to be creative in many. John’s first creative venture was in cooking. Out of necessity he needed to cook for himself, but thought that if he was going to cook, he might as well do it with flair. His first creation was a spaghetti soufflé. My mind tried desperately to comprehend such a dish and I asked him how it turned out. “As a soufflé it was a disaster, but it made an incredibly good flan.”
John was sure of one thing as a young man and that was that he wanted to be self-employed. He needed something that he was good at and passionate about. As he said to me, “That eliminated most things”. He thought about opening a restaurant because of his love of cooking; after all, he was now pretty good at duck a l’orange (doesn’t that take you back!) but realised he needed more capital than he had for that venture. He thought about sports management due to his love of sport (40 years later John regularly goes to the gym, swims and kayaks) but felt that wouldn’t realise his creative needs. In the end, having successfully renovated his own home, he decided on landscape design. He admits he was naïve, but was enthusiastic, and had energy and drive.
He started off small, advertising by doing a letterbox drop in his local area, and not only doing the designing but the labouring as well. The labouring side of things he didn’t enjoy. “It’s not a great winter job – and besides I have no passion in building my designs – and so I wouldn’t employ myself” but needs must. Over time, as his business grew to employ 10 staff, he was able to leave the labouring to others.
He came to the realisation early that he wasn’t as good as he thought he was. He found that his attitude had to change from one of seeking to direct the client into his self-determined design to one of listening and collaborating with the client. His now firmly held view is that when a client looks out onto their garden they should have good memories of the whole process, from the early consultation stages, to the design and to the dealing with the tradespeople. He has made sure, therefore, that his staff have the same values as himself. Each and every one of them is nice to have around, is fair and honest, and passionate in what they do.
In his design John was strongly influenced by Ellis Stones and Edna Walling. One of the founding fathers of the Australian landscaping design, Melbourne-based Ellis Stones created hundreds of gardens in his lifetime, often using naturalistic rockwork, and was an early proponent of the use of Australian native plants. So good was Ellis at rockwork that one of the most influential landscape designers of the 1920s and 30s, Edna Walling, asked him to create a wall for her. This started a collaboration of many works where Ellis used his “rare gift of placing stones” and Walling created gardens with naturalistic styles including garden “rooms” that made suburban gardens appear much larger than they were.
John often used natural stones in his own designs, creating idyllic settings where natives flourish. So far, touch wood, the placement of the sometimes massive stones has not occasioned any disasters but John does admit having his heart in his mouth as he watched 10 tonne boulders being winched over a suburban home with limited access.
And so after 40 years in business with a plethora of satisfied customers, culminating in winning the customer service category in the Australian Achiever Awards, he decided it was time to “95 per cent retire” to Inverloch. He had been introduced by friends to Inverloch 35 years ago. He bought a house there five years later having fell in love with not only the beauty of the Bass Coast but also the friendliness of the inhabitants. He has watched Inverloch grow over the years from a sleepy hollow to where it is now, a vibrant town where businesses can thrive.
On retiring, John took himself and his wife on a trip to Europe and revelled in the art that he saw. He was particularly entranced with art contained in the George Pompidou Centre, taking the time to study each of the pieces and realising that he too could make art. And he has been experimenting ever since. His current project is “Lego Lady”, which comprises 50,000 pieces of Lego fashioned in the shape of a sultry woman. It would already be completed except that his first attempt collapsed in front of him. According to his wife, “showing remarkable restraint”, he started the process of putting the pieces back together again.
One important thing he decided as he travelled through the art galleries of Europe was that he would only do one-offs. Considering purchasing a €4000 art work, he realised it was in fact one of 20. So he only does one-offs, which makes his mosaics even more appealing.
You can see his work at ArtSpace Wonthaggi and know that when you purchase the “Warrior”, you will be the only one to have those haunting eyes watching over you.
ArtSpace Wonthaggi, Centennial Centre, 1 Bent Street. Open 10am-4pm daily.