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Hot property

Hot property

Posted 28 November 2013

Looking around the office of artist and business owner Wayne ‘Liwingu’ McGinness, it quickly becomes evident that the man needs a bigger whiteboard. The small board on which Wayne currently records commissions for his marine-grade Aboriginal steel sculptures is full, with entries including Wesfarmers, the state governments of Victoria and the Northern Territory (NT), and the 2012 Australian Paralympian Team.

Halfway down that list though is one entry that means the world to this quiet and unassuming artist—‘Billy Missi and Me’—representing the one metre tubular sculpture Wayne recently created in collaboration with Missi, an internationally renowned Torres Strait Islander artist. To have collaborated with an artist of that calibre, for exhibition at the prestigious Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, is just one of many rewarding creative experiences Wayne has had of late. Such experiences are testament to the rapidly growing reputation and demand for the art he produces through Aboriginal Steel Art, the business he operates from the backyard of his family home.

Wayne McGinness at work in his Kuranda workshop.

All fired up: Wayne McGinness at work in his Kuranda workshop.

Just as important as the public recognition he is receiving, however, is the personal validation Wayne feels about the leap of faith he and wife Lucy took in moving their young family away from home, extended family and Wayne’s employment as a welder in the NT to test out their idea for an arts-based business in the tourism hub of Kuranda, near Cairns.

Now with their business galloping ahead faster than they had imagined, the couple are concentrating on ensuring both their business and family foundations stay strong to keep pace with the opportunities coming their way.


Wayne’s love affair with steel began as a child in the NT watching his late grandfather, Val McGinness (Woodadudawich) at work. ‘I learned everything from grandad, who was a welder and mechanic’, said Wayne. ‘We started out with normal kid’s stuff—we made a sidecar for my bike. And we’d go to the tip and pick out all this steel and cut it up, and it was all old-style welding with gas bottles and torches. All the time I was learning from him about steel thicknesses and so on… My dad often says, ‘You’ve got your grandfather’s brain, and if he was around now think of the things you two could make together'.

It was in 2006, while fencing his family’s new home outside Darwin, that Wayne first thought to combine his love of art with his skills as a welder and steel fabricator. ‘We’d bought a little block of land’, he said. ‘I’d made a fence…and had this idea to make a solar-powered sliding gate. I wanted to put a wrought-iron decoration on it, but I didn’t want to do the normal vines and stuff you see… My parents are both artists, and as I started sketching I was thinking about mum and dad’s paintings… I did a couple of drawings of a four metre crocodile… Off I went to the tip, like I did with grandad, and got some rusty steel for $30 and made this sculpture that I attached to the gate… Dad was here on holiday, and he and mum were looking through my sketchbook and he said, ‘You could probably make a living out of that, you should do that’. Simple as that!’

A steel representation of ‘Lizzie’, the mascot of the Australian Paralympian team

A steel representation of ‘Lizzie’, the mascot of the Australian Paralympian team

So the family moved across the country to Kuranda, and Wayne began ploughing his 17 years of welding experience— and all the teachings of his grandfather—into a range of functional Aboriginal art (such as fence panels, gates and balustrades), as well as one-off fine art sculptures for sale through art galleries in Cairns, the Atherton Tablelands and the NT. As a newcomer to the art world, however, establishing relationships with retailers and gallery owners proved tough going, and the family soon found themselves under financial pressure. ‘There were a lot of dead-end phone calls and emails’, said Wayne. ‘I was thinking I’m going to need to go out and get a part-time job and earn money, because we’d put so much into this business… But Lucy said, ‘No, I’ll go and get the job and you can keep working on this’. All along she has been the person who has said we’ve really got something here, we can do this… It had gotten to a stage where we really needed to find some sort of [business] direction, and we thought there must be somebody out there who could help us’.

That help appeared in the form IBA’s series of three one-day Into Business™ workshops, designed to help Indigenous Australians explore their ideas and readiness for business ownership. On completing the free workshops in 2011, Wayne and Lucy received mentoring to move their business forward, and chose Elmarie Gebler and Graham Caldwell of Fortis One Pty Ltd in Cairns from IBA’s network of business consultants.

‘...early on you want to please everyone, get every little bit of work you can, and you’re scared you’re going to lose jobs… But Elmarie helped me realise that there will be other jobs, you need to stick to your pricing, and if a customer wants the work they’ll pay for it—and if not, somebody else will’.

To develop a more solid financial and administrative platform for the business, and a more consistent income stream, Elmarie and Graham encouraged Wayne to explore the corporate gifts market. This would require Wayne to produce multiple copies of his artworks, and Elmarie believes Wayne’s willingness to embrace that idea has contributed to the growth his business is now experiencing. ‘Wayne is not precious about his art’, she said. ‘He’s precious about wanting the world to see it, but not precious to the point of, ‘I will not feed my family because I want to create this beautiful [single] piece of art…’ When we first met, most of Wayne’s work was in galleries, which is lovely, but it’s all on consignment, and you have to hope somebody is going to buy it… So we went off and looked at the market for corporate gifts… The Cairns Convention Centre was the first company to say to Wayne, ‘We’d like to buy a few pieces from you’…and I think that gave him the confidence to think yes, I can do this… It was very hard at first to make those contacts, meet the right people, but once it gained momentum Wayne built up more and more self-confidence…’

This sculpture, a collaboration with artist Billi Missi, is called Gugi Sapural (meaning Flying Fox)

This sculpture, a collaboration with artist Billi Missi, is called Gugi Sapural (meaning Flying Fox)

Wayne’s confidence as an artist and businessman was further tested when it came to deciding on, and sticking with, a price for his artworks. ‘In the early days I did a lot of work that cost me more time than it was worth’, he said. ‘I found it hard to place a [dollar] value on my work. Everything was a first and there was no unit cost. Also, early on you want to please everyone, get every little bit of work you can, and you’re scared you’re going to lose jobs… But Elmarie helped me realise that there will be other jobs, you need to stick to your pricing, and if a customer wants the work they’ll pay for it—and if not, somebody else will’.

At those IBA workshops…the thing I learned was that the nine to five job is gone; now it’s five until nine and longer some days…’

And there has been no shortage of work since Aboriginal Steel Art joined the Australian Indigenous Minority Supplier Council (AIMSC) as a certified Indigenous supplier. AIMSC was established to assist Indigenous businesses to enter into commercial relationships and supply some of Australia’s largest corporations and government agencies with the goods and services they require. Aboriginal Steel Art continues to receive new and repeat orders from AIMSC members, and was asked by AIMSC itself to design the trophies for presentation at its annual awards in April this year.

At the time of interview, Wayne’s workshop benches were awash with 450 handcrafted steel butterflies commissioned by Wesfarmers (a frequent and loyal customer) for inclusion in a conference bag. Waiting in line was a commission by the Tali Gallery in Sydney for a steel sculpture of ‘Lizzie’, the frill-necked lizard and mascot of the Australian 2012 Paralympic Team.

This rapid growth in reputation and demand for Wayne’s art has brought with it a new and unfamiliar predicament: how and when to say no to a business or creative opportunity. It is a scenario that Elmarie had the foresight to recognise, and encouraged both Wayne and Lucy to consider to avoid overpromising to customers, and/or burning out physically and mentally from the workload. Elmarie said: ‘How much Wayne is there to go around? He is already working long hours to meet the production demands. With the demand as it is he will need to start saying, I can do this for you but you will need to give me ‘x’ number of weeks or months’.

Wayne’s growing confidence as an artist and businessman has enabled him to respond to that challenge. ‘I don’t want to be rude’, he said, ‘but I know I need to be firm [when saying no]… And I need to be pretty picky about what I send out because it’s going to represent the business’.

To cope with current production demands, Wayne has begun outsourcing some of the basic laser steel cutting of his designs, having first locked in non-disclosure agreements with suppliers to protect his art and intellectual property. This has allowed more time for the creative side of his business, designing and sketching new pieces. He’ll soon have even more time when Lucy joins the business on a parttime basis. ‘We thought long and hard about it’, said Wayne. ‘Lucy’s initially going to cut back to three days a week at her job [in real estate], and work two days a week with me. That way we won’t have all our [financial] eggs in one basket’.

Wayne is excited to have his biggest supporter finally working alongside him in a business she has championed from the start. ‘It’s going to be so satisfying for me’, he said, ‘because it really does become our business instead of ‘my art’. I mean I always refer to it as we, our, us but now it really can be our business’.

With Lucy having recently completed a Certificate IV in Frontline Management, the timing could not be better. The rapid growth of Aboriginal Steel Art has already necessitated a rethink of existing business practices and administration systems. In her new role, Lucy will take over much of the customer relationship management and maintenance of databases, while both she and Wayne continue to work with Fortis One on reviewing their accounting, reporting and business structure.

The couple is aware of the energy and time that their expanding business will continue to demand of them, and are focused on ensuring their family unit stays as strong as their business foundations. ‘At those IBA workshops…the thing I learned was that the nine to five job is gone; now it’s five until nine and longer some days…’ Asked how he juggles the demands of a home-based workshop with family life, Wayne said: ‘I don’t know that I ever really switch off from work. I mean I’m not welding roof beams out there [in the workshop]. So some mornings I wake up having dreamed about a design and map it straight out… But working from home, I do get to put the kids on the bus in the morning and be here when they come home from school. And sometimes that might mean working at 11 o’clock at night because I’ve done something fun with them in the afternoon. But I don’t mind, it’s nice and quiet at night and when you love it, it’s not a chore’.

With what they call the phenomenal support of close family and friends behind them, Wayne and Lucy’s excitement and enthusiasm at working together to move Aboriginal Steel Art forward is palpable.

And they’re definitely going to need a much, much bigger whiteboard.

Find out more about Aboriginal Steel Art and IBA's Business Development and Assistance Program.