Uncle Phil, 81, speaks fondly about his first trip to Brisbane as a young teenager. Having grown up playing on the beaches of Stradbroke Island, or Minjerribah, he said it was the first time he had worn shoes and seen an elevator. His father had brought him to town for a job interview, determined that his son would earn a living outside of the island’s sand mines.
These days Uncle Phil is a regular at Centacare’s Alani Social and Community Hub in Richlands. His family and his artwork are the two most important things in his life and he’s very grateful for them both.
After moving from Stradbroke Island, Uncle Phil carved out a successful career as a boilermaker blacksmith in the picturesque town of Fingal Head, in northern New South Wales. He lived there for 50 years until his wife died.
“I woke up one day and found myself in hospital,” said Uncle Phil.
“The doctor said to me ‘your God loves you’. I said ‘I know that, but why do you say that?’ He told me I had died three times while in hospital and that I’d had a triple bypass and a new valve put in my heart. I was in the hospital for six months. I learned to walk again and here I am.
“Now I live up here in Forest Lake with my son and his family. They’re magic to me.
“There isn’t much I can do with my health the way it is. I just do my artwork. I do engraving on emu eggs, painting of emu eggs, paint on the guitars, anything I see. I’ll just pick it up and turn it into something. I love it,” he said.
Uncle Phil is currently working on a totem pole at Alani. It tells the story of his life. His friend, Bull, works alongside him on his own piece. Uncle Phil shares his knowledge and skills with Bull but mostly they share laughs.
They both used the Hub’s impressive range of power tools to grind the timber into shape and create intricate carvings.
Uncle Phil says that Aboriginal art is an important form of communication, in much the same way the telephone is today. He describes how it’s been used across the generations to tell important cultural stories and educate others through symbols, icons and dots.
“Art is shared and is used to pass on knowledge about the land, the sea, how to survive, all kinds of things,” said Uncle Phil.
“It’s also very important to us here at Alani. It’s a form of connection for us, something that we share. We are a community here and everyone is welcome. We enjoy each other’s company. It’s a good life, yeah.”
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