Will the real Jimmy Possum please sit down

bill santalab of Lower Wilmot and Mike Epworth of Coolum Jimmy Possum Chair workshop V2_

Will the real Jimmy Possum please sit down

AUGUST 2016 | Lorraine Clarke

JOINERY MACHINES were idle while people from 9 years to 90 learned how to shape reclaimed timber with drawknives and simple tools to create primitive furniture in a workshop held at Deloraine Community Shed.

Mike Epworth and partner Bronwyn Harm had travelled from their home in Mount Coolum, Queensland, to run a course in constructing bush chairs after the fashion of Jimmy Possum.

So who is Jimmy Possum? An exhaustive 1978 UTAS Honours study concluded that despite many stories, nobody really knows. All we have are the chairs he produced in the Meander Valley from about 1880 to 1900.

Deloraine’s Folk Museum has several of his chairs on display, but no birth records, documentation or photos of the man exist. It is believed that he may have been of aboriginal descent, as he utilised the traditional technique of burning holes in the timber to join components together. Mike Epworth describes himself as an 8th generation Vernacular Australian Chair Maker. He has original documentation of his forebears, a continuous line of cabinet makers going back to the First Fleet.

Since first pulling apart and restoring one of Jimmy Possum’s chairs in 1987, Mike has made over 1,000 similar chairs. Mike now uses some power tools on his “Bodja Chairs,” a reference to the traditional craft of bodging, where woodsmen crafted furniture from green timber with handtools.

“I always think when looking at Heritage crafts, what is a benefit for now, and what is an implication for health and physical activity. What is right for now, rather than fetishising the past,” explained Mike. As well as bush chairs, Mike creates a 2-seater settee.

These are crafted from re-purposed timber which has a story to tell, then decoupage is applied to give context of the people and place from where the timber was sourced. An example is a chair made from old floorboards. When he pulled up the lino covering them, he discovered old newspapers beneath. Mike realised these papers told a story about the time when they were laid down, and the people who lived there. “There is something about being the first person to see those papers after 80 years,” said Mike. Now, that story is there for all to read, decorating the chair.

Mike, who has a degree in Archaeology and a Master’s Degree in Visual Art, works with indigenous, refugee and farming communities to make chairs all over Queensland. This was his first interstate workshop, thanks to the collaboration of the Mountain Huts Preservation Society, and Roger Nutting of ABC Radio.

He intends to return during the Craft Fair in October where he will run one-day courses in using the drawknife, and again for about 6 weeks around Christmas, when he will run courses for those interested in making their own chairs using traditional techniques.

“No skills are required. That’s the beauty of it. It’s an old-new approach to woodwork.  You can very quickly pick it up,” he said. “For the price of a new chair, participants will be able to create their own Vernacular Furniture in a week-long course.”

Mike is working on a Wikipedia project on Jimmy Possum, and starting up a Jimmy Possum Appreciation Society on Facebook. Email: mike. epworth@griffithuni.edu.au

Mike Moores