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Victor McGrath

Victor McGrath

Meet the maker - Vic McGrath

Victor McGrath
Victor McGrath. Photo: Dragi Markovic

Victor McGrath was born on Waiben Island, where he spent most of his childhood.

During his youth he learnt about scrimshaw and shell carving from the traditional craftsmen.

He continues a long Torres Strait tradition of artistry in carving pearl shell, turtle shell and dugong bone, etching their surfaces with images of marine and terrestrial wildlife.

Excerpts from an interview with Vic McGrath by the National Museum of Australia, 9 December 2005.

NMA: Uncle Vic, can you tell us where you were born?

VM: I born in TI, 1948. I continuously reflect on what a good time that was because I grew up at a time when they were still pearling in the place.

There were very few island people living on TI, pre World War Two. Around '48 people just started to come. So I grew up there working in a pearl shell places helping people do general stuff.

NMA: School on TI?

VM: School on TI, although no high school, so I had to go away for two years.

I don't have a formal arts background, I just started mucking around. Also my folks place where I grew up backed on to an old Sri Lankan shop that sold pearl shell jewellery. There was an old Badu man working in the back shed, just across the fence from my place, so I hung out there a lot and sort of learnt from this old guy doing shell carving and that.

NMA: So where do you say you are from in the Torres Strait?

VM: I am actually from TI [Thursday Island], born and bred there, my parents born and bred there, my grandparents. My Torres Strait heritage, though, is from Kubin on Moa Island.

NMA: Can you tell us a little bit about your artwork and how you were taught and the cultural significance of what you do?

VM: I wasn't taught anywhere formally. I guess arts always been an interest of mine. Like I say, I met this old Badu man, Mr Nawaki, who was doing jewellery, making pearl shell teaspoons and stuff in the back of this Sri Lankan jewellery shop and he was my neighbour across the fence, so I was always there.

As well as that, on the other side of us was another uncle of mine, on my dad's side, and he was the undertaker. He had this equipment there for when you do little engravings, RIP or whatever, to put on coffins. He had a little drill and stuff there and one of my first jobs was working for my uncle fixing divers' helmets, (this was when we were kids), replacing leather gaskets and also soldering these where the holes had been made.

I remember my uncle had a connection with all the luggers. All the people come and got the helmets fixed and stuff. We also had a big bunch of pearl shell laying around so he was actually making things with the equipment that he had for engraving his coffin name plates and stuff. So I used to borrow that stuff as well and muck around.

I basically did stuff out of interest, mostly work with pearl shell. And then I started doing a thing called scrimshaw (which I didn't know was called scrimshaw). All I was doing was scratching stuff, scratching designs and thinking them up until I discovered the Haddon Collection. There were a couple of pieces in there when I met the guy who did the book (David Moore), and he gave me a book for a present and I found a piece in there which was a pearl shell.

It was on display at the National Museum for a while. I actually went down and put the captions on it when it first come out, when you first opened, but there was a piece on display down there that I'd actually went all the way to Cambridge to see, because I wondered whether there was more stuff like that in the Torres Strait. There isn't but this one was, you'll know it, it's a pearlshell piece that had a dugong scrimshawed, incised, whatever you want to call it, carved on the surface with the way you cut it up. And [the pearlshell was] the knife itself that was used to cut it up, so it was like a tool with an instruction manual engraved on it really. It was a fascinating piece for me.

So I'm basically self-taught. I don't have any secrets to it. These young guys today, when I visit the islands, they all sort of look and say, 'oh there's Vic McGrath, he's a carver', and they come and talk to me and they're surprised that I am happy to help them, I'm happy to show them where to buy machinery or give them tips on how to do stuff. I am always trying to encourage young guys to do that stuff.

NMA: What about the cultural significance of these pieces?

VM: I very much steer away from that in a lot of ways. I guess I have inherited a style or a design notion, but bear in mind, all that old stuff's got a significance that's well beyond me, and well beyond me to try and even copy. Even my work that looks something like old traditional pieces, I deliberately don't [copy] purely because I don't have the right to go making a piece of art out of something that was purely functionally focussed on the cultural significance of the day.

NMA: So about this turtle shell mask we want to borrow, can you tell us the yarn behind that?

VM: Well it's a very simple one. Basically, when I went to Cambridge and the British Museum and New York and everywhere to look at Torres Strait masks, I really wanted to study the construction methods people used in the old days. I just couldn't believe they made these fantastic pieces.

Some of the ones I've seen [other Torres Strait Islander] people still haven't seen. There are some amazing pieces stuck in repositories and back rooms and dungeons in museums overseas. But I really was interested in how they actually made these pieces and I also had this notion that if I go and talk to these guys, one way we could talk about repatriating or getting our stuff back was, I'll go and make a deal. I taught myself the skill of making masks, maybe I can go and talk to them about doing a deal and I'll give them my stuff and they give us our stuff, our old stuff, back. Anyway that's, as you know, not that simple.

NMA: Your turtle shell masks.

VM: My turtle, the piece you're talking about. Okay, that piece. Basically, one of the things I learnt when I did go away and study beautiful, big, complex, fancy Torres Strait masks made out of turtle shell, was that they actually don't just use the shell from the Hawksbill.

That's the feature part, the hawksbill. In the old days they eat any turtle they catch, but they don't anymore. No-one eats hawksbill up there anymore, so you don't get that shell anymore. So basically the material, or the number of platelets of turtle shell that I have had access to is very, very limited and I think that's one of the differences, without making excuses, as to why I maybe couldn't make a big mask.

Basically, in the old days when you eat a lot of turtle, you would have had mounds of this stuff laying around your backyard or, you know, in your village and they're all different shapes and sizes. Actually, it's like going into a hardware shop, I guess, and buying a whole bunch of stuff and making something because you've got the range of materials to do it with. So the lousy few pieces that I found around TI just kicking around yards from people's collections, the piece I am gonna lend you, is only made of three pieces as opposed to a real complex traditional mask that could have up to a hundred pieces in them.

NMA: The piece you're going to loan us?

VM: It's a simple piece based on an old mask from the Eastern Islands. I say based because that's what it is, it's similar. But I was just keen then to work out, how you call it, there's a way that you can work turtle shell, and the old people used to tell me how you do it because they made simple things in my days, bangles and stuff.

So I learnt how to do that, but then when I see these intricate pieces (like the noses for instance), very complex pieces - it takes a lot of working out. In white man's terms you talk about radial development - how you lay out something if you want to make it a particular fancy shape - so I worked out how to do all that and then basically what you do is cut out this shape that's going to be a nose and a mask and then you have to then make the shape, so you gotta actually have this thing laid out before it actually goes into this funny shape. So you gotta work all that out.

I'm sure in them old days they would have done that with a leaf or something, not a coconut leaf, too small but a bigger leaf you know and then fooled around with different shapes, and folded it and got that shape and then they cut that turtle shell out of that, sorry the nose out of the turtle shell, to the design of the flattened leaf.

Then what you do with those curly pieces is you go and you gotta heat it up, cook it up on a saucepan or whatever and then it's got what they call a plastic memory. You can then bend it to whatever shape you want but if you reheat the thing the plastic memory will take it back to it's normal shape. I got to learn how to bend stuff and make complex shapes so the little piece that we're talking about, that little piece, it's very simply two pieces that are naturally shaped, and the nose that I have created in this funny shape in the style of a proper traditional mask.