Mid-North Coast artist, Les Alessandro has established himself as one of Australia’s most unusual artisans, with art lovers clamouring for his work.
International delegates, like US President George Bush, may have preferred the DrizaBone jackets they were given at the end of the Sydney APEC summit five months ago to the usual “funny shirts” leaders are traditionally given at each forum. But they also received a gift of something far more unique.
Special mementos in the form of 70 kangaroo and 18 platypus sculptures were distributed to the most important guests, chosen above hundreds of other art works considered by Federal Government organisers to symbolise and leave a lasting impression of Australia.
Little did they know that the gleaming silver animal representations were each individually and lovingly crafted in a shed on the banks of the Manning River by Mid North Coast artist, Lew Alessandro. The sculptures have since winged their way around the world and may well now rest on desks in the Oval Office, the Kremlin and 10 Downing Street.
The recipients have joined an elite band of owners of Alessandro’s Cutlery Creations – representations of Australian native fauna crafted from nickel-silver forks and spoons. Many owners live in the Port Macquarie and Taree districts, fortunate to stumble across the appealing pieces in local art galleries – notably Port Macquarie’s Regional Gallery on Horton Street – where Director, Sharni Lloyd, finds they are ever-popular with passers-by.
Alessandro came up from Sydney chasing a dream 25 years ago and is now established as one of Australia’s most unusual artisans, with art lovers clamouring for his work. He works from home in the charming village of Tinonee, ten minute’s drive west of Taree, in a federation-era residence that was once Taree’s Mayo Private Hospital, moved and installed on a house block in the village around the turn of the century.
Like all good ideas, Alessandro’s sculptures came about by accident.
“One day, I was trying to create some wind chimes from old forks,” he recalls. “I trimmed the tines from a couple of forks and they fell to the bench tangled on top of each other, and to me they looked like a spider – with eight legs.
“That was the beginning of my creations. I began cutting up forks and spoons of all shapes and sizes to see what other images I could find and one by one they began to evolve.” Today, the Cutlery Creations menagerie includes frilled-neck lizards, dragonflies, wallabies, snakes, eagles, komodo dragons, turtles, parrots and cockatoos.
“There are too many creations to name them all,” says Lew. “I work from animal encyclopaedias in three categories: Australian insects, animals, and sea creatures. I also make decorative and useful products such as wine vessels, mugs and candle stands.
“They’re varying sizes. Many of the pieces range from about 15cm long. No two are the same. Every piece is hand-crafted and they are all different somehow, in the way they stand or hold their head. The biggest I’ve created so far is an eagle landing on a stump with a snake wrapped around the stump. It stands about two metres high and was bought by a lovely couple who live in Port Macquarie. Around 500 pieces of cutlery were used to create it and it took five or six months to build.”
Cutlery Creations is a true cottage craft.
“I’m married to an adorable, supportive woman named Suzanne. We’ve been together for five years and have four children between us: Shaun, 18, Jayde, 16, Kirra, 14, and Blake, 11. Although I was creating sculptures before we got together, we’ve now built a successful business. We work extremely well together, side by side five days a week.
“We work in a 6 m by 9 m shed and two smaller sheds. In the large shed we store our medium – the cutlery – and that’s where it’s cut up, assembled and soldered. The other sheds are for sandblasting and polishing, and coating our pieces and packing them to send to customers.
“I only use nickel silver cutlery because it can be manipulated without breaking. After I cut up the spoons and forks I solder them together and bend their legs and so on with pliers, all done freehand.
“Then we apply a protective coating to ensure they have an everlasting shine. The coating’s applied so they don’t tarnish … if you polished our pieces you would scratch them! Hot water’s all that’s needed to keep them clean.”
When the business took off, Alessandro’s other love, music, had to take second place. A drummer, he’d played in bands as a youngster and at 16 came north to join local group, New Values.
“We toured from Canberra to Townsville for years, often supporting top Aussie bands like Midnight Oil, Mondo Rock and Aussie Crawl, all of them had a huge following.
“I was also in the band One Intention with Joleen Anderson from TV’s All Saints – and the winner of It Takes Two – with (now) Zebyah guitarist Todd Saunders and bass player Ben Saunders, back in 2000-2001. But then music took a back seat while I followed my artistic career path and developed our business.
“Now, I’ve returned to the music scene and am drummer for Zebyah. It’s a popular Mid-North Coast band and I am very excited to be drumming again, and pleased it’s with Deb, Al, Todd and Ben.”
A current preoccupation, however, has been sourcing cutlery for his work. So popular are the pieces, he was running out of supplies.
“I’ve always collected cutlery from places like the Salvos, Vinnies, Lifeline, second-hand shops and deceased estate sources. My family and friends are always on the lookout for me. But as our business has grown the demand for cutlery’s become our number-one priority. We’ve had to begin importing our spoons from overseas.”
Alessandro has lost count of the number of pieces he’s created over the years – “thousands,” he says. “They range in price generally from an echidna toothpick holder at around $60 to a kookaburra or giraffe at about $380. Then, naturally, the larger sculptures run to thousands of dollars because they take many months to create.
“I can’t pick a favourite; I love all the pieces I create. I invite people who are interested in larger or special sculptures, or want to make suggestions, to contact me. I’ve recently been fortunate enough to meet and create gifts for our lovely Australian author Di Morrissey, who’s very well known and admired in the Manning Valley.”
In fact, it was the obvious admiration for his work that originally convinced Alessandro that he was creating something special. At the Darling Harbour Olympic Exhibition in 2000, his opinion was confirmed when he received the Gift of the Year Award. Now, with many enthusiastic collectors in his following, Alessandro sees no end in sight.
“Our creations are often bought as gifts to send overseas, and as souvenirs. I feel lucky to fulfil my passion and at the same time provide for my family. I get great satisfaction seeing the public interest in my work. There are always people who’ve never seen our creations before, and they’re amazed. My wife and I used to go to the markets, such as at the Sydney Opera House, but now we don’t have time. We bubble-wrap and post orders all over the country and overseas and we’re lucky that all the galleries that feature us have actually come and sought us out – found us.
“Creating sculptures is all we have time for, apart from music and family commitments at the weekends. We hope one of our children would like to learn the ropes one day. I have a crocodile I started years ago and have never had enough spoons or time to complete … I hope to finish it soon: it’s the true scale of a croc, about 4 m long.”
See Lew’s Cutlery Creations retailing at: Port Macquarie Regional Art Gallery, Michelle’s Jewellers Tuncurry, Kolinda Gallery Alstonville, Capercaille Winery in the Hunter Valley, Matt Loreton Jewellers Coffs Harbour, The Rocks Market in Sydney, Ultra Art Design Broadbeach Qld, Jive Art & Design Noosa Heads Qld, Leaping Lizards Gallery Alice Springs NT, Peninsula Galleries Sorrento and Rosebud Vic and Lil Bit Xtra Salamanca Markets Tas.
Tel 6553 1090
Fax 6553 1091
Mob 0400 356597
Story by Susie Boswell.