The new age of Iron

A Writer on the dawn of Lithgow’s Ironfest .

THIS year marks the sixteenth anniversary of a unique festival in the Central Western NSW town of Lithgow – Ironfest – the brainchild of a couple who escaped the city of Sydney for life on the other side of the Blue Mountains.

Their story was published in the April-May 2010 edition of Blue Mountains Life magazine (Vintage Press).

LIFE OF IRON Ali and Macgregor Ross, co-founders of Ironfest.
LIFE OF IRON Alison Lynes and Macgregor Ross, co-founders of Ironfest.

Iron Founders

Macgregor Ross and Alison Lynes’ life of Ironfest

Macgregor Ross and Alison Lynes nearly cancelled the first Ironfest in 2000.

“I’m not a fatalist,” Mac asserts, “but there was something about it which was meant to be”.

“I’d spent a few years gathering a database of metal artists I’d met on the festival circuit, we’d named the date and Ali designed our logo, but exhibitors were very reluctant to come over the Mountains. One by one they all cancelled.

“Then a local said: ‘You’ve been talking about this for years, why don’t you just do it?’ I don’t know if it was synchronicity, but the next day people started agreeing to come along and join in.”

Ali shows me what that first event entailed, in a converted shop-cum-home on the main street of Lithgow, where she, Mac and their daughters live and work.

“We created a gallery circuit,” she explains, “with two shops, the walkways down the sides and both back gardens full of art,” she adds.

“On a truck in the back lane there was a band called The Mull Pigs, with the audience sitting of roofs in all directions. There was one fire twirler, and a local blacksmith.”

Even before Ironfest, metal played a part in Mac’s life. While working for the federal police, he took a bullet on the job.

“I was looking for a way out of that career anyway, but the injury created an eight-year hole in my life.”

“One of the best things about Ironfest is there’s no crappy food and no rides, but the kids still love it.”

His path to recovery took his thoughts back to a 1982 trip to Mexico, where he was first inspired by the art of metal. By the time he’d met Ali and had some direction in his life, it was the precious metal gold which became his pass to the Central Western town of Lithgow.

“With what I had left from the compensation payout for my injury, I purchased one gold bar,” Mac says. “The bank manager was not that keen on our idea of buying an old shop to live and work in,” he remembers. “We had limited assets, and Ali’s business books from her shop in Newtown, but I had the gold bar in a paper bag and just pulled it out…”

Bank loan approved, the chance to head west allowed this couple to reinvent themselves. Like many artists, Ali (who works in glass and draws), and Mac (a metal artist) struggle with deriving an income from their creative work. Ironfest was a way to turn that around, for themselves and others.

From an initial attendance of around 400 people ten years ago, numbers at the 2009 Ironfest soared to an estimated 10,000. This expansion is the result of constant vigilance about the couple’s creative vision and their ownership of the Ironfest brand (the event is run under the auspices of Ironfest Inc – a registered, incorporated not-for-profit association). Such growth also created a few waves in the Lithgow scene.

Lithgow has a long history in the metal industries, something which inspired Mac when he found out, almost by accident, that this town at the western foot of the Blue Mountains was the birthplace of the steel industry in Australia.

KNIGHT SCHOOL The Ironfest crowds thrill to the sound of mock fighting.
KNIGHT SCHOOL The Ironfest crowds thrill to the sound of mock fighting.

The centenary of Lithgow’s metal roots happened to be around April 24, 2000. In the same way Federation in 1901 gave Australia a symbolic separation from its British roots, the ability to produce its own steel for the production of high-grade weapons gave the new nation a form of industrial independence. Finding the historical reference was “like finding a gold nugget,” Mac says.

Key to the first year’s success was the pitching of the story of Lithgow’s metal heritage to ABC radio, which provided great coverage.

“Now we have news clips about the festival sent to us from Al-Jazeera television,” Ali laughs. “We can’t understand a word they say, except ‘Ironfest’.”

Ironfest was always going to attract those interested in weaponry, and over the years it’s become a celebration of the art of combat, from the Australian Napoleonic Association to the jousting tournaments brought to the festival by Rod and Michelle Walker.

From one blacksmith in 2000, they’re now expecting seventeen exhibitors of this ancient art.

Mac and Ali have faced many challenges to the longevity of Ironfest, including perceptions about town that they are millionaires. Ali clarifies their position on this: “Artists are very often expected to create their work for free,” she says, “but we set up Ironfest so that artists could generate income. We offer a chance for people to contribute something creative which they’re good at, even if they make fifty bucks”.

“It’s a portable event,” Mac adds, explaining how Ironfest has relocated to other venues and now has a home at Lithgow Showground, and may well go further afield in the future.

The two are quick to explain how executive and production committees of supportive locals were borne of the willing voluntary crews the event attracted right from the start.

“You cannot rely on the goodwill of volunteers forever,” Mac adds. “We rely on people investing their time and energy, and we try to match that with a way to earn money from Ironfest too.”

When asked how co-producing a major event impacts on their relationship, Ali says: “Usually at Ironfest time we’re like ships passing in the night”. With two girls, there is a family unit to keep running, and both Rosa and Maya are proud of the family festival.

Rosa likes to relate that ‘Ironfest’ was the first word she ever spoke, and Maya has often used Ironfest updates as her class news at school.

“One of the best things about Ironfest is there’s no crappy food and no rides, but the kids still love it,” Ali says.

Some of the old-fashioned thrills the event provides for the young and the young-at-heart include beheading re-enactments and ‘Knight School’ for would-be pages who get to mock fight with foam weapons.

A graduate of the UK’s Winchester School of Art, Ali also runs a popular local boutique called Rock Star, in addition to her glass art and attending art lessons.

Mac’s not afraid of admitting that his creative practice has suffered a bit due to Ironfest, but it’s been a great way to exhibit and sell metal art he’s had sitting around in their iron-dotted town garden.

Between the shop and home, and the steel shipping container which is the Ironfest office, there’s a collection of Mac’s art, which seamlessly melds into the garden itself, from beautifully wrought garden chairs to delicate iron and plant fusions.

“I do as much of my art as I can, but I think I have found my life’s work in Ironfest,” he reflects.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.


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