KIDS can be cruel. And cruel they were to a young lad of five from Holland. Keith Hulsman was teased and bullied as a child and taunted with jibes about him having his finger in a dyke. He was bullied so much that it affected his schooling and when he left school he could hardly read and write. It was only after he left school that he taught himself this life skill.
So it is unsurprising that when he got enough money and when he turned 19 he packed his bags and left his home in Tasmania in search of the world. He only got as far as New Zealand. A beautiful young woman, Alma, encouraged him to stay, or as he wryly puts it, “She spoilt everything!” And he has been married to her ever since.
Our conversation is sprinkled with reference to the length of their marriage (they decided it must be more than 40 years when they realised one son was 48) and the number of children they had at any one time in their life together, “Did we have three or four when I worked on the dam?” They ended up with seven.
Keith first decided he wanted to create with wood when he was working in Tasmania on the then proposed and very controversial exploration for a dam on the Lower Gordon. Huon pine surrounded their worksite. They cleared a landing site for the helicopter that would bring them to and from the site and in the process cut down many of the pines. He found that, even green, Huon pine was able to burn and he and his mates would start a camp fire with them each evening and cook a barbecue. He also saw the pines that would fall by themselves into the river and be washed downstream and into the ocean. Such a waste. And so he determined to collect some of this precious timber and bring it home.
His first project was a simple canoe. He can still remember the beautiful smell of the wood as he carved it. When I asked Keith what he loves most about wood carving he says quite simply it is the smell of the freshly carved wood – and nothing better than Huon pine.
He started off making cars and tractors for his children. He got more serious and started to get some plans to make more complicated designs. It was difficult for him as he had to overcome his poor reading ability. Each plan contained not only patterns of pieces which he had to draw to scale but also intricate instructions. But he persevered and over time he became more confident and then made enough pieces that he could put some on display at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre.
It was a bulldozer that attracted the attention of a man who paid the $1200 asking price. The man turned out to be Neville Harper, once Tasmanian speedway legend, and then gallery owner. He told Keith that he was going to take the bulldozer back to his gallery and put a price tag of $2700 on it. Neville told Keith he didn’t think he would get that much for it but he was delighted a few weeks later to call Keith to say it had sold and invited him to come over any time and sell him some more. Keith and Alma were about to go for a trip anyway so they packed up some bits and pieces such as doll’s furniture. The “bits and pieces” netted them $2000. It gave them enough money for their holiday and a bit left over to buy some more wood to start the cycle again.
It can take up to six weeks for Keith to make his larger pieces. There is a grader in ArtSpace at the moment which took that long and is priced at $6250. It may sound like a lot but when you take out commissions it works out to around $20 an hour and that isn’t taking into account the cost of materials and equipment. But then I am not sure that artists or artisans are in it for the money!
I asked Keith how he can spend so much time perfecting each of his creations. He told me that he has the patience of a saint. “After all I have been married a long time!”
Keith moved to Inverloch to be close to two of his daughters who had found the Bass Coast a wonderful place to live. A hard-working battler all his life, he retired shortly afterwards and his payout and superannuation from working with Toyota for the previous 15 years gave him enough money to buy a home outright in Sunny Sands Village in Inverloch. It is a delightful village with each small home immaculately maintained. It couldn’t be any other way as each home abuts the next.
I asked how Keith’s neighbours find the noise of his machines. “Well, I had to sell my big thicknesser – and I only work between 9.30 and 4.30.”
“And how about your hearing?” I asked “Sorry?”, was the predictable reply. Alma puts it down to marital deafness as she says his hearing is quite selective, “Sorry, did you say something?” her husband quips.
“And how do you cope, Alma, with Keith in his workshop all day?” I queried. “Not good”, she replied, “but I do make him a cuppa every now and then – and it does keep him out from under my feet.”
I asked Keith whether he dreamed of making something that he hadn’t made so far. His reply: “I want to make my own coffin out of Huon Pine. After all, it wouldn’t rot. Maybe it could float down the Franklin.”
You can see some of Keith Hulsman’s works at Artspace, in the Wonthaggi Centennial Centre.