December 6, 2023

Gay Hawkes’ art studio used to sit right on the water at Dunalley, in Tasmania’s south, but there is no evidence it was ever there.

The building, along with Ms Hawkes’ home and a huge collection of her art and tools, was destroyed in the 2013 bushfires that ravaged the south-east of the state.

A chair made from scrub with a tall back of sticks
This chair is made from horizontal scrub, pallets and also uses quoll fur, cane toad skin and chicken feet.(Supplied: Peter Whyte)

With just the clothes on her back, the furniture maker fled to an evacuation centre at Nubeena where she spent several days.

“You’re fleeing from something like a big monster that’s coming,” Ms Hawkes said.

“Listening to the people who were flooded [recently] and the people escaping in Ukraine and taking their belongings and rushing away — I really identify with them and I know how they feel.

“You’re so grateful when people give you a cup of tea and something to eat, or toothpaste, because you’ve got nothing.”

The former teacher and celebrated artist, 79, never rebuilt from the fires and sold the land where the boat shed studio once stood.

Her loss, resilience and unique skill will be displayed as part of a new exhibition called The House of Longing, beginning this month at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG).

Gay Hawkes art TMAG
These pieces were made before the fires.(ABC Radio Hobart: Megan Macdonald)

Quoll fur and chicken feet

After the fires, a friend let Ms Hawkes live and work in a small studio on a property at Bream Creek that looked out to Hellfire Bluff across rolling countryside.

“It’s such a beautiful spot and I was so inspired that I made 31 pieces of furniture in the three years I was here,” Ms Hawkes said.

“The aim was to furnish a whole house which I hope to get.

“Every time I looked up it would lighten my heart.”

a woman sitting on a wooden bench looking out at a view of greens hills and a distant bluff
Gay worked from this studio for three years after the fires.(ABC Radio Hobart: Georgie Burgess)

Throughout her career she has used material salvaged from forestry sites in south-west Tasmania, drift wood from the Bass Strait Islands and pallets from the streets of Melbourne.

One piece even uses quoll fur, leather from cane toads, and chicken feet.

Ms Hawkes said her only requirement was that she had to like the material.

The House of Longing

Her upcoming exhibition at TMAG will display works from before the fires from collections around Australia, as well as the pieces she created after.

A lot of the furniture is for her imagined house, with the exhibition reconstructing her ideal home.

“In my head I’ve got a house, but I don’t actually have it,” Ms Hawkes said.

Losing her uninsured studio was a big setback, and she has since found herself priced out of the Hobart rental market.

“I know women my age who are living in a van or going from toilet block to toilet block,” she said.

“It’s a disgrace. [Housing] is just a basic thing that people should be able to have.

a woman sitting in a wooden studio, hands folded looking at the camera not smiling
Gay says housing should be a basic right.(ABC Radio Hobart: Georgie Burgess)

‘You don’t have to buy things’

TMAG curator Peter Hughes said Ms Hawkes was a pioneer of pallet furniture.

“She has always been a minimal consumer,” he said.

“She has said to me she has never paid for a piece of wood.”

He said the exhibition will appeal to a broad audience.

A man in a grey vest next to an wooden art installation looks direct at the camera against a white wall.
Curator Peter Hughes says the exhibition will appeal to a broad audience.(ABC Radio Hobart: Megan Macdonald )

“There are cabinets about the football grand final and sculptures of Lady Di.

“But behind the apparent simplicity of the work is a really lovely sophistication that shows her ability to make a collage in 3D.”

Gay Hawkes art on display TMAG
The House of Longing will be on display at TMAG until August.(ABC Radio Hobart: Megan Macdonald )

Ms Hawkes used to teach children how to make furniture from her Dunalley studio, something she looks back on fondly.

“I taught them to make furniture from things they found as well, and the attitude that you don’t have to buy things and if you need something you can make it,” she said.

The House of Longing opens on Friday, March 18 at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and will run until late August.


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