Category Archives: Artists

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.


Jodie Van Der Velden – chocolatière extraordinaire

HIVE OF ACTIVITY Josophan's Fine Chocolates.
HIVE OF ACTIVITY Josophan’s Fine Chocolates.

A Writer’s sweet encounter with real chocolate.

ONE of the first pieces of lifestyle media I ever wrote was an interview with Leura’s beloved chocolatière Jodie Van Der Velden, at that time in the process of shifting her Josophan’s Fine Chocolates factory onto the Mall.

I was delighted that Jodie was willing to share the tribulations behind one of her early triumphs.

This article was published in the April-May 2010 edition of Blue Mountains Life magazine.

Jodie and her chocolate factory

Jodie Van Der Velden on sweet secrets she learned in Chicago.

JODIE Van Der Velden won her ticket to Chicago by taking a cake in an esky to the Hunter Valley. Not just any cake, but an elaborate six-layered gateau which she planned to “pop in the freezer” on arrival.

This was the day of the Australian Culinary Federation’s Callebaut Chocolate Dessert competition, and Jodie, husband David and daughters Sophie and Hannah arrived at 4.30am.

But the freezer door where they were staying wouldn’t shut with the gateau inside it. Jodie had to fill and seal the sizable gap with tape and hope it would chill. With only a few hours before Jodie was due in front of the judges, there was much to achieve for her ‘palet d’or et noisette’ without the resources of most of her competitors.

The list of ‘extras’ on this exquisite dessert included hazelnuts with chocolate soil and passionfruit cream. “I had to make the ice cream over electricity not gas, and by  9am I’d burnt it, and knew I wouldn’t be getting any sleep before the competition,” Jodie adds, wincing.

“Chocolate is complex, it has top, middle and end ‘notes’, just like wine.”

In the marquee where competitors plated their desserts, Jodie was found a small space next to a microwave. It was frustrating, she confesses: “Not just the lack of space compared to come others, but while I was trying to place 23-carat gold leaf on delicate lace chocolate spheres, the microwave door was being slammed by other competitors”.

“David and the girls were parking the car and had a bowl full of leftover gateau and garnishes with them. We hadn’t had breakfast in all the rush, so out came the spoons. By the time they’d found me plating-up my gateau, they quietly approached me and whispered: “It really is good Mum”.

“It confirmed for me just how good it was… they’re my toughest critics, I trust their judgement!”

Jodie walked-off with two gold medals and the overall first prize – an all-expenses-paid trip overseas for further chocolate training. From a field of twenty-three, including several culinary luminaries, this was a “very sweet victory” Jodie concedes.

She then had to decide which of the worldwide Callebaut Chocolate Academies she would visit.

“I’ve visited France and Belgium every year for the last three years,” she says when asked why she picked the United States over Europe, “but I’d never been to Chicago… it is a brand new academy, with state-of-the-art equipment, and, as it turns out, my trainers were French anyway!”

Jodie took two classes, one in chocolate sculpture and another in plated desserts.

Apart from new territory in the world of chocolate, what Jodie found in the Chicago food culture really inspired her. “There’s a real community feel to cuisine there,” she enthuses, “in some of the new popular restaurants you share larger tables, or sit together at bars, it’s more of a communal dining experience. There’s a very different atmosphere around food. I fell in love with Chicago.”

Jodie was also exposed to Molecular Gastronomy, where science meets cooking. For someone who tackled the best in Australia and came out on top, I imagine Jodie’s not afraid of a few scientific utensils.

SMOOTH SCIENCE Jodie is effusive about the work that goes into creating flavour.
SMOOTH SCIENCE Jodie is effusive about the work that goes into creating flavour.

“It’s all very precise,” she reveals of learning how to make caramel pearls. “They are made by adding one per cent alginate to a liquid, then dropping tiny pearls of it into a water bath that has two per cent calcium added to it. The reaction is such that when the droplets go into water, they develop a skin around the liquid sphere. They’re drained, then eaten. The outside skin bursts in your mouth and the liquid drizzles out. Yum!”

Jodie cites chef Ferran Adrià i Acosta of el Bulli restaurant in Barcelona, creator of Apple Caviar, as her inspiration in this pursuit of a sensual food experience.

“Whilst I wouldn’t say molecular gastronomy principles are used in my everyday chocolate work, the concepts surrounding it are very much part of the inspiration that moves me forward, experimenting with flavours, textures and presentation,” Jodie says.

Visitors to Leura are familiar with what Jodie and her husband David have achieved with Café Josophan’s in only five years. Sensing there was a gap in the market for a fine chocolate boutique on the Mall, Jodie embarked on an ambitious plan to make chocolates here in the mountains. Ambitious because Josophan’s is about the indulgent experience of chocolate over just taking something home in a box.

Jodie doesn’t believe that experience has to be the way it’s always been for Australian chocolate appreciators. “Chocolate is complex, it has top, middle and end ‘notes’, just like wine,” Jodie explains. “When this is considered, combinations of flavours can really bring out the best in fine chocolates or desserts.”

Partly because she insists on using fresh ingredients (meaning a limited shelf life for her chocolates), Jodie has created in Josophan’s a true chocolaterie.

“In countries like France and Belgium, high quality chocolate is part of everyday life. There’s a chocolaterie on every corner. Here in Australia we’re only just developing that tradition. We’ve gotten used to what I’d call ‘chocolate-flavoured confectionary’, which has a long shelf life and has been created in a laboratory to taste like chocolate and other flavours.

“Josophan’s chocolate is about using fresh ingredients, in our mint chocolates, for examples, we infuse fresh cream with real fresh mint leaves and add fresh butter.

“We’ve developed a signature style,” Jodie says when I ask about the shape and colour of her chocolates. “Many recognise our chili-flavoured chocolates, for example, with the bright swirls. There’s a lot of brightly-coloured cocoa butter being used out there now, but I’m a bit of a purist, we only use a little. I like my chocolates to look classic.”

Jodie is very keen to share her knowledge and hosts chocolate appreciation classes in the new Leura chocolate boutique. She laughs when I ask if she gets self-confessed chocaholics coming along.

CHOCOLATE WITH CLASS Chocolate appreciation at Josophan's.
CHOCOLATE WITH CLASS Chocolate appreciation at Josophan’s.

“Many people say ‘I don’t need a class to appreciate chocolate!’, but we’ve created a way for participants to learn how to discern quality in chocolate.

“We follow the process from bean to bar, exploring what happens during growing, harvesting and manufacturing that makes the end result so different amongst chocolates, and of course we also get a lot of chocolate tasting in!”

Jodie has many plans for Josophan’s, not least the intention to expand the chocolate factory from Blackheath to Leura. She also plans to introduce Josophan’s hot chocolate to the wholesale market, “something we haven’t been able to do with our fine chocolates,” Jodie elaborates, “due to their fragile composition and the use of no preservatives. We’ve added a real couverture chocolate flake (high cocoa butter content) to our hot chocolate mix, creating a luxurious blend allowing customers to make an indulgent hot chocolate at home.”

There’s a chocolate factory on its way to Leura. Rejoice!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.


O Come all ye Forceful

GIVE A LITTLE Christmas carols come from a long tradition of protest.
GIVE A LITTLE Christmas carols come from a long tradition of protest.

A Writer on protest Christmas carols.

DURING the silly season, when you catch a strain of yuletide song at your local shopping centre, know that what you’re listening to (or doing your best to avoid) probably started its life as a protest song.

Well, perhaps not technically a protest song, but a Protestant song, which once meant the same thing.

When Martin Luther reformed the church establishment in the 16th century, he brought song into the churches and placed it in the mouths of the faithful.

A songwriter in addition to being a reformer, Luther was keen for men and women to sing in their own language, instead of listening to male choirs performing in languages most congregations barely understood.

Crowds of people have been singing back at the pulpit ever since. Heck, I’m going to credit Martin Luther with the creation of popular music!

“Here’s my Christmas present to you: check out the video clip to our generation’s protest Christmas carol.”

The celebration of Carols by Candlelight in the Australian summer, and the tradition of wassailers walking from house to house singing carols in the northern hemisphere winter holiday, grew from this egalitarian sharing of messages of hope and forgiveness.

Good King Wenceslas”, a staple of carolers across the Western world, tells the tale of a privileged man who reached out to a needy one. Sung on the doorstep of the wealthy, it’s a call to share. Sung on the street to the homeless, it calls for us to have no shame in asking for alms.

A carol is free speech, shared by a community, often embedded with messages of hope and reminders of humility, and not necessarily owned by anyone. Admit it or not, you probably could reel-off a few if you were forced to, just like at school, and they’ve been popping up in popular culture for some time.

Ironic because its message of giving emerged in the midst of the decade since labelled the ‘greedy’ Eighties, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure’s “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”, recorded by the Band Aid charity ‘supergroup’, utilised star power to raise millions of dollars to aid people suffering in the Ethiopian famine.

The song has had resonance for the three decades since its first recording, but neither the 1989, 2004 or 2014 reboots, or the recent cover by the cast of American teen musical television series Glee, saw the same amount of money or interest raised by the 1984 version, which remains one of the most enduring examples of a disparate group of pop stars overcoming egos and geographic barriers to simply lend a hand.

PROTEST SONG John and Yoko's 1971 effort.
PROTEST SONG John and Yoko’s 1971 effort.

Like John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Happy Christmas (War is Over)”, written as an anti-Vietnam War anthem, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has begun a cultural transformation into a Christmas carol.

The song and the movement behind it has faced harsh critics since its release.

Lambasted for perceived creative shortcomings, and the subject of ongoing speculation about large portions of the funds being creamed-off by Ethiopian warlords, co-writer Bob Geldof has often been moved to blast the media about its coverage of criticism of the Band Aid movement.

As a 14-year-old I witnessed the release of the video and the single of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The song was on everybody’s lips for a summer, and the subsequent international Live Aid in July 1985, also organised by Geldof and Ure, was the concert ticket of the decade.

Watching the video now, the pathos of the moment, and what’s happened in the world since, makes me well-up.

There’s Boy George, voice like a clear bell, before it all went wrong; and Paula Yates and her kids, waving in the throng. There’s George Michael, a paragon of talent, long before he was outed; and a soaring Bono, practising being a global awareness raiser.

There are the stars, and the bands (and their hairdos) who didn’t know they were already on the wane, and those who have survived to become icons: the superstars of my youth in all their self-conscious glory turned-up when they were needed.

I’m proud of my generation for this song, which essentially belongs to the people of Ethiopia.

But, almost thirty years on, the original version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is hard to come by. Only the array of cover versions is available on iTunes.

The lyric in the finale of the song – “Feed the world” – has lost its original context. The Glee cast video makes no reference to starving children in Ethiopia, it’s a call to feed the needy, everywhere.

So, if you’re my age and older, here’s my Christmas present to you: check out the video clip to our generation’s protest Christmas carol and tell me, has anything recorded since had the same impact?

Don’t forget to sing along, you know the words!

This article first appeared on NoFibs.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.