Forged in steel

04 June 2019 by Claire Hunter

Nicholas Dawson

When Nicholas Dawson is working at his forge, nothing else matters. “I did a day with a blacksmith 30 years ago and I just really enjoyed it because I just lost myself in the forging process,” he said.

“I was physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the day, but while you’re forging you just focus on that, so it’s like a meditation.

“All thoughts are gone – any good or bad thoughts or any stresses – so it’s a bit of a stress reliever.”

In 2018, the former soldier entered the Australian War Memorial’s inaugural Napier Waller Art Prize ­— the first national art prize offered exclusively to servicemen and servicewomen.

His striking Self-portrait was highly commended and displayed at the Memorial as part of the Napier Waller Art Prize exhibition.

“I heard about the competition about four weeks prior to the closing date,” he said.

“I was in my shed at the time and I was doing some forging work so I thought I’d like to enter it, but it took me about a week or two to come up with an idea.”

He created a spine out of steel to represent his service in the Australian Army – upright, flexibility, holdfast, load carriage, distortion, injury, and mortality.

“I like to forge functional objects, but a sculpture gives me the opportunity to forge an idea,” he said.

“So I thought about my service … and came up with the idea of a spine – having the spine to serve, to be flexible, to stand upright, and to do what’s right – and also put some shape into it.

“It weighs 40 kilos, which is the minimum weight for load carriage for a combat person; that’s what soldiers  – men and women – [who] want to be in the Arms Corps [have] got to carry for 10 kilometres before they do all the other exercises, and that includes your helmet, armour, pack, rifle and webbing.

“The shadow [it casts] is like a shadow of your former self and is part of the effect.”

The finished work took 30 to 40 hours to construct, with each hole taking at least an hour to create.

“For each hole punched in there, you have to heat it up to at least 900 degrees Celsius, and then split and drift,” he said.  

“Each individual mark on the spine is a blow, delivered either soft or hard … [so] the finished product displays the effort through the texture, hammer marks, and imperfections imparted on the surface of the work.”

For Dawson, the process is as important as the finished work.

“I try to get down to the forge when I can,” he said.

“I enjoy the process of forging, moving, and creating form in the medium of iron; the intense heat and force required to make the metal take shape; displacing the metal through upsetting, splitting, drifting, twisting and hammering. While forging, the focus needed to move and shape the iron, all distracting thoughts are gone.”

Entries are now open for the 2019 Napier Waller Art Prize, which aims to promote artistic excellence and the healing potential of art, while raising a broader awareness of the military experience and the impact of service on the individual. 

“It’s very special,” he said at the time. “I was happy to be shortlisted … but having it highly commended and put on display is very special.”

For details about the 2019 Napier Waller Art Prize, visit here.