“As a born artist or a maker, you will become a bitter person if you don’t become who you are.”
Although I built my first guitar in high school, my original profession was as a jeweller.
I always knew that I wanted to do something to do with the arts and crafts, so when I saw the Gold & Silversmithing course at RMIT in a year 12 university guide, it seemed like the right fit.
It was essentially a fine arts course, quite conceptual and design-orientated, which was great, but fell short in terms of actual commercial making skills.
Fortunately for me, I found part time employment at a friend’s family’s jewellery workshop, doing rudimentary things like cleaning castings and polishing pieces. I worked there for the duration of my course, and that allowed me to develop really strong hand skills, something that a lot of my classmates missed out on.
Straight after uni, I went into business on my own. I really don’t know what I was thinking!
I had no life or business experience, and for a year I struggled, barely making ends meet with a handful of private commissions.
Eventually, I landed a proper jewellery-making job at a commercial studio. I joined a team of jewellers, making pieces that clients ordered from the designer’s catalogue. Here, I got to experience working with precious stones.
However, the business owner was a bit of a tyrant, notorious for high staff turnover. I lasted 12 months before I left to move to Geelong.
There, I met my first real mentor.
In my lifetime, I’ve had four really important mentors, and I truly believe mentorship is an essential ingredient to professional growth. Once formal study ends, it must become your responsibility to seek out mentors who will help you learn and grow as an adult in the real working world.
Chris Sherwin is one of Australia’s best goldsmiths. He was working on his own in Geelong and needed a part-time assistant in his shop. I walked in one day and basically just introduced myself.
We came to an arrangement where I worked part-time for him, and the rest of the time did my own work under his tutelage. I worked with Chris over two years and learnt a lot.
Chris was a perfectionist, and he taught me how to be attentive and meticulous with everything that I did, along with a wealth of techniques and skills and great industry contacts.
My next job was in Melbourne as the main jeweller at Marion Marshall Studios.
Like Chris, Marion was a talented artisan and a member of the Gold and Silversmiths Guild of Australia. She designed some fantastic ranges of jewellery and still does: very edgy, high- end contemporary pieces that bordered on art objects.
Marion Marshall was a really astute business person. She once boasted to me she could sell ice to Eskimos. And she could.
She had a great design sense, but also a great ability to design on the spot as she talked to clients, charmed them and gaining their confidence.
I learnt a lot of business skills from Marion, although at the time I didn’t apply them. I worked for her for over eight years, but back then I didn’t really have the confidence to sell and schmooze with clients.
In those early years, I was always working in the background, making the jewellery and working through the technical aspects with Marion performing the design process – but not putting myself out there in my own right.
Unfortunately, as I learnt, people who do that don’t make much money.
When I was around 30, and still working for Marion during the week, I started to work weekends for Philip Carson-Crickmore, one of the best acoustic guitar makers in Australia.
It started as a hobby. My passion for music and for guitars was always in the background and I tinkered around with things in my spare time. At one point, I decided I wanted to build a jazz guitar.
A jazz guitar is the pinnacle of guitar making. It’s like the Stradivarius of guitars.
Phil had a course in jazz guitar making but it was financially beyond my means then. But when we chatted, a window of opportunity presented itself to work with Phil and learn.
Phil had some jazz guitars under construction at the time and required some fine metal components to complete them. In those pre-internet days, it wasn’t something you could easily purchase, so when I told him I could make these for him, Phil invited me in.
Aside from the metal work, I did the grunt work of guitar making: sanding, cutting and assembly.
In exchange for my labour, I got to observe the master at work and immerse myself in my passion.
By the time I reached my mid thirties though, I came to a point where I needed to become more financially stable, buy a house and settle down. I made the tough decision to leave the creative industries and focus on making money.
For the next two and a half years, I worked in the airline maintenance industry, based at Avalon.
I started at the bottom, as a tradesman’s assistant, but quickly worked my way up to a planner position, responsible for overseeing the documentation for the various aircraft maintenance processes.
The work wasn’t rewarding, and working shift work was hard. But I made excellent money, learnt much needed computer skills and made some great friends in the process. The income allowed me to achieve my financial goals, which was the point of the career change.
The next big stage in my life occurred when Chris Sherwin got back in touch with me. He had become a TAFE teacher and the coordinator of NMIT’s jewellery making course. He invited me to become a casual fill-in teacher.
The first time I spoke in front of a classroom full of people was exhilarating. I loved it. It was such a buzz. I felt like I was born for it!
Within a few months of me starting, a permanent position came up and I was invited to apply. I took a $10K paycut and went back to jewellery, this time as a teacher.
Chris and I formed a fantastic alliance in developing the NMIT jewellery course. The old course was old fashioned and dire. We took what we both had learnt at RMIT and drove the course upward to become the top jewellery course in Australia.
Over five years, we made it more conceptual, insisted on higher standards and revamped its very culture to suit the times. As other jewellery courses throughout the country were being shut down, our numbers swelled every year.
I am incredibly proud of what we did there.
TAFE institutes can be brutal places to work for, and management was notoriously difficult. NMIT was plagued with many internal issues. When the management turned a blind eye to some very serious allegations, Chris went to the state ombudsman to try and resolve the issues.
As a result, instead of punishing the guilty people, Chris was labelled as a whistleblower and was forced out.
That crushed me. I watched my friend and mentor be marched out of the building.
I was told to take over as course coordinator, or the course was to be shut down. At that time I had a mortgage and a young family, so I did it. It was awful.
I stayed another 5 years. It was not the same without Chris, and even though I still cared about the teaching, often I felt like an island battling the tides in the place.
There was an upside, however. After about 2 years, I met Peter Lamburd, who was the Associate Director of the Performing & Visual Arts faculty at the NMIT. He was to become my fourth mentor.
Throughout my time at Avalon and NMIT, I had continued with guitar making, in my free time.
Peter had an interest in Bass guitars, and when he heard about my hobby, he asked to come round and have a look at some of my guitars.
My instruments really impressed him and we spent a few hours discussing my history in guitar making. Peter then came up with the idea to create a course making electric guitars and basses with me as the teacher. Unlike the majority of TAFE management, Peter was very passionate and open, and so I agreed.
Before I knew it, the course was established with many students booked in to start.
I continued on as course coordinator and teacher with the jewellery department, and then on Tuesday nights, I’d travel to the other campus and teach guitar making.
It was the first course of its kind in Melbourne, and it was successful from the start. We have always had a second teacher in class ensuring that we had a 6:1 teacher-to-student ratio, which was necessary to keep an eye on all the students and make sure no-one got seriously injured while operating the machinery. That person was Robert Pryke.
Robert taught furniture making, but he loved the idea of the course, so he came on as the co-teacher, learning some of the tasks on the job and contributing great technical knowledge about wood work.
About four years ago, NMIT found itself in serious financial trouble following government’s withdrawal of funding and the push for privatisation of vocational training.
Management started to offer redundancies. I had 13 years under my belt, and having done the numbers, I realized I could get near to a whole year’s salary as payout. I took the redundancy, and as a bonus, was allowed to remain teaching on a casual basis.
Under pressure, management became increasingly focused on the bottom line, cutting costs without consideration of students or staff.
The last straw came when they proposed to take away Rob as co-teacher, insisting that 1 teacher per 12 students was enough. I explained the dangers of injury, but they didn’t care. Rob and I decided to call time on the course at NMIT.
I knew I wanted to continue with guitar making and with teaching. So together with Rob, we decided to set up the course again, outside of TAFE.
We looked around until we found our current premises. We took out a lease and set up the workshop similar to the one at NMIT. When designing the courses though, we wanted to take what worked at TAFE, and then improve on that to make a better offering.
One of the big changes was course structure. At TAFE, people enrolled and paid for a 60 hour course, but if they missed a class, that was too bad. As a result some people didn’t feel like they got their money’s worth and I was saddled with doing extra (unpaid) work on their guitars to ensure they finished.
What we do now is sell blocks of time, which means people can do their 60 hours at their own pace. If they like to work slowly, they can buy extra time to finish their guitar, if they work at a faster rate they can finish sooner – it’s up to them, and everyone’s happier. They only pay for the time they spend with us.
The other interesting thing I noticed at TAFE was the social aspect of the course.
Our demographic is mainly guys between 30-60, who love the music and the instruments. In class, they develop a great rapport, even catching up outside of class to socialize and see live music.
It felt like a scene developing, a bit like Men’s Shed. I think a lot of guys find it hard to connect and talk about things, but when you’re at a workshop, doing something with your hands, that communication becomes easier.
At TAFE, we often had to remind the students that it was time to go- that they had homes to go home to!
So with the new school, we actually wanted to encourage this. We set up a hangout space within the workshop with some old couches, a fridge and some amplifiers.
We want people to feel free to drop in outside of class to catch up with others, plug in some guitars and have a chat. I really want to foster this social scene it’s the kind of community I want to be a part of myself.
To promote the school, I took to social media, encouraged by Peter Lambert, who is still a great friend and patron. I have Facebook pages both for the school and my own practice, plus I post threads in a section on the Ozbassforum.com.
This approach has worked really well, and that’s how we get most of our clients – as well as through word of mouth.
At the same time, I am running my own practice, DJS Guitars, making guitars for professional musos and enthusiasts. The two businesses work well together: commission work can be a bit of a feast-or-famine situation, but the steady income from the school keeps me going.
We’ve been trading 5 months now, and in the black from day one. We planned it carefully, figured out exactly how many hours we needed to sell in order to pay for everything and we’ve never fallen short yet, which is great.
I didn’t always realize it, but for most of my life I wanted to make guitars.
That passion was always with me. I feel like I have finally arrived at a place where I’m meant to be, doing exactly what I was born for.
Yes, I wish I could’ve gotten to this stage earlier. I am fifty this year, and physically, working 50-60 hour weeks takes its toll on me, not to mention the guilt I feel from being away from my family. I wish I could’ve done this when I was in my thirties, full of health and energy.
But I also realize that what I have today is the culmination of 30 years of experience. In my thirties I may have been full of zest, but I didn’t have the confidence or knowledge I do today.
Today, I can sell ice to Eskimos! – I have learnt the necessary business skills.
I use my jewellery skills to make the fine metal components and decorative details for my guitars. People are fascinated by the intricate inlay work on my pieces; that has become my unique edge, a signature style.
Likewise, my experience at TAFE teaching, designing and running courses has been vital in establishing my business. So everything I’ve done has proved necessary in the end.
As a born artist or a maker, you will become a bitter person if you don’t become who you are. I love what I do. My idea of a holiday would be to sit at my workbench and leisurely work on a guitar, without worrying about the commercial aspects.
That’s why I’m not ever going to retire. I will step back eventually and let someone else teach the course. But I will continue making while I’m physically able. Artists don’t retire, they keep creating until the end and that’s what I see myself doing.