Caloundra is one of the first ‘pieces’ of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast as you travel north from Brisbane. The road which George and Vesna Gavaric live on is one of the main drags and transits quickly through Currimundi, Wertulla, Bokarina and Kawana Waters to Warana Village. On the map, Nicklin Way runs adjacent to a wide and still pristine expanse of surf-washed beach, but alongside there is evidence of recent expansion in the newness of shopping centres and soon-to-be suburbs such as ‘Parklands’ and ‘Park Haven’, named with the poetic licence of local property developers.
Travelling along the highway then, it’s a far cry from the ‘Better Dollars Furniture Mart’ and ‘Gone Bonkers Discounts’ to the furniture workshop of George Gavaric. It’s an even further cry from the recent wars of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia to the relatively peaceful noise of traffic on Nicklin Way, Warana, Qld, but that’s where George, his wife Vesna and their daughter Sanya chose to move to eight years ago.
George is a studio art furniture maker who lives and works from a small brick veneer house near a set of traffic lights on the side of a busy highway. The family initially considered living in Sydney but found in the local Yugoslavian communities a replication of the sorts of political attitudes they were trying to get away from. So, with some cash but not much else, they came to the Sunshine Coast. Vesna has a relative fairly close by, but it’s an aunt she knew when she was one year old, a not-so-thick blood link—they never see her.
George and Vesna’s friend Ian, who runs the Homesaver Hardware store across the road and who admires and has bought George’s furniture, reckons that when George came here eight years ago he had three words of English: ‘“hello”, “thank you” and “Makita”’. Rendered suddenly speechless in a foreign-speaking land the family was at first isolated. Years later, after some serious language study, they can laugh at their early attempts. Pronouncing the sound ‘th’ is hard if you are Slavic and Vesna recalls the dumbfounded expression she was greeted with in the local McDonalds when she asked for ‘free’ icecreams. Learning about the local timber species was difficult and at times frustrating, as George keenly sought information.
George and Vesna don’t care much about money. They have a few nice pieces of furniture, hand made by George of course, and the silky oak kitchen doors are certainly a cut above the usual brick veneer house norm, but there is a great sense of irrelevance as to where they live, what they own and what they wear (even though Vesna is a dress designer and maker with her own following). Cigarettes, coffee and, judging by George’s exceedingly spare frame, not much food are what fuel their compulsive lifestyle. After 24 years of marriage they like to be near each other on a round-the-clock basis, but that means doing their own thing in different parts of the residence. While George gets up at 6 or 7am to start a day working in his garage-cum-shed through to maybe midnight, Vesna is ‘not a morning person’, but likes to design and sew until perhaps 2 or 3 in the morning: ‘It’s quiet, no one comes…I can think.’
How many hours does he work a day? ‘Oh, my God, who knows? Maybe 15, sometimes 20, sometimes 12, sometimes I can’t sleep,’ says George. ‘It all depends on if he gets inspiration…,’ says Vesna, ‘if he gets an idea, forget about lunch, forget about dinner, forget about George, don’t ask him anything, just leave him alone.’
Since arriving in Australia, George has made 80 of his one-off pieces. He makes about 12 a year and usually has three or four on the go at the one time. Where did he learn to make furniture: ‘Life taught me,’ he says, but a two year trade school course in joinery and cabinetmaking in Belgrade gave him the fundamentals. Piles of sketch books show the genesis of each piece through an evolution of pencilled variations. Of the many variants on a large page, the one circled may have inspired him to laminate, curve and veneer the native timbers he likes to use.
As a furniture designer/maker in Yugoslavia after a brief career as a teacher of physical education, he worked in a non-existent field. ‘No one else was doing this. I was lucky I had some “strange” customers who wanted me to make special things,’ he says. But George doesn’t make more than one of the same piece. His work sells through galleries (mainly Bungendore Wood Works in NSW) and he won’t work to commission unless he can call the shots: ‘I won’t make changes,’ he says firmly.
Making selected timbers and veneers into the intersecting curves and weaves of his mind’s eye is his challenge, and he likes to push his own limits. ‘I’m all the time thinking. I’m never happy when I’m finished. It always pushes you to think of another way.’ It’s obvious George enjoys his self-set challenges: ‘I am,’ he says, looking at Vesna for the word, ‘a, how-you-say—a masochist.’
Vesna is an important part of George’s artistic equation. ‘She is my greatest critic,’ says George with both irony and respect. ‘It’s better she tells me what’s wrong before a customer does’—and neither of them want any problems later on down the track. But very often it’s her disapproval which spurs him on. ‘If Vesna says she doesn’t like it,’ says friend Ian, ‘George will make it.’ ‘There was one piece George showed me,’ recalls Vesna, ‘that I said straight off I loved—but George didn’t believe me and said, “Are you sure?”’
Their conversation is layered in a dry humour which belies their close and supportive relationship. When the phone rings Vesna is there to take the call and she’s usually the one with the answers. When they go somewhere, Vesna does the driving because George simply doesn’t do that. The monotony of the road causes him to lose interest—‘it wouldn’t be safe with him driving’, notes Vesna—he likes to look around and see the beautiful trees or whatever on the way.’
After some chat it is time to visit George’s workshop for a clue to his hands-on creative process. The white-walled workshop is clean and spartan in appearance—suspiciously so. It turns out our visit has prompted a frantic tidy up, as can be gauged by the facial expressions of both George and Ian. In fact the backache George complained of earlier while stooping for a cup in the kitchen has been caused by his over-zealous workshop preparations.
Nevertheless, there is a remarkable lack of fuss in the square shaped workshop. A combination machine, a bandsaw, small dust extractor and a guillotine for cutting veneers form the machine-powered section. There are no fancy hand tools, just a few Stanley planes, a selection of chisels, rules and other bits and pieces on the walls. George does, however, possess a good set of clamps, needed for the stack laminating processes he frequently relies on. George doesn’t ever reproduce a piece, so the jigs he may make for a piece are dismantled afterwards, resuming their spot in a pile on the shelf above the European-style bench. A small supply of timber, around six or seven months’ worth George estimates, is neatly stored on racks in a corner. There’s lots of light when the roll-a-door is open and a homely view onto the green but uncut lawn and paling fences of the neighbours’ yards.
George Gavaric is one of those rare artists who refuses to compromise on what he makes and how he makes it, but still manages to survive economically while satisfying the tastes of a small clientele.
Reprinted from AWR#39, story by Linda Nathan, Editor, Australian Wood Review