Shoalhaven connection to stunning Sydney artwork

TOMERONG identities Doug Schutz and Ron McKinnon have played a major role in a stunning artwork recently installed in the Sydney CBD.

Mr Schutz, from The WoodYard and Mr McKinnon, of the Timberhills property, have supplied a 35-metre tall blackbutt which is the centerpoint of an artwork, suspended over Underwood Street.  

The artwork, called 'Underwood Ark', is by National Art School graduate Michael McIntyre and features the massive root ball of the tree and three sections of the trunk.

The tree is suspended 10 metres in the air over Underwood Street, just one street back from Circular Quay. It looks as if it passes through the connecting walkways.  

STUNNING: Artist Michael McIntyre (centre) with Tomerong's Ruth and Ron McKinnon, Colleen Brittain and Doug Schutz at the official opening of 'Underwood Ark', a 35m blackbutt in Underwood Street Sydney.

STUNNING: Artist Michael McIntyre (centre) with Tomerong's Ruth and Ron McKinnon, Colleen Brittain and Doug Schutz at the official opening of 'Underwood Ark', a 35m blackbutt in Underwood Street Sydney.

The root section alone weighs a massive eight tonnes.

The work represents a tangible connection to Sydney's colonial and Indigenous past and was part of a unique collaboration between the National Art School and property developer Mirvac.

From start to finish, the project took 18-months.

At 64, Mr Schutz, has worked in the timber and earthmoving industries all his working life, and while this isn’t the biggest project he’s worked on, it is by far “the most difficult by a long way.”

“This project really came from left field,” he said.

“Michael had contacted Forestry about his idea and they suggested he speak to me.

“I don’t think he realised what a massive job it was to try and remove a tree that size, as well as preserving it at the same time. He had no concept of what he was asking to be done.

It isn’t the biggest project I've worked on but it is by far the most difficult by a long way. - Doug Schutz

“It was a huge challenge. We got Michael down here to look at some smaller trees and show him what he was proposing, but on a bigger scale.”

Originally the proposal was to use a spotted gum, a predominant species in the Sydney Basin.

“That wouldn't have done the job, spotted gum logs break down quickly,” Mr Schutz said.

“They then suggested ironbark, which I replied - good luck with that. Eventually I suggested blackbutt but then we had to try and source the right tree which was no easy task.

“While talking to Ron [McKinnon] about the project, he suggested he may have just the tree on his property.”

Mr McKinnon is renowned for his bush skills and described the project as one of “magnificent proportions”.

IMPRESSIVE: The root section alone of 'Underwood Ark' by National Art School graduate Michael McIntyre in the Sydney CBD, weighs a massive eight tonnes. Photo: Steven Siewert:

IMPRESSIVE: The root section alone of 'Underwood Ark' by National Art School graduate Michael McIntyre in the Sydney CBD, weighs a massive eight tonnes. Photo: Steven Siewert:

“We were really only a small part of the overall project, having provided the tree from our property, and then helping with its removal,” Mr McKinnon said.

“It was one of the very spectacular blackbutts on our property. Doug came to us with the stipulation the tree had  to be big, at least 35 metres.

“We spent a day going around the property and in the end we picked out five trees but I kept coming back to this one.

“It was and outstanding blackbutt specimen, a massive log. It was that good I don’t think I would ever cut it down for the mill.

“The artists and engineer came down and they were also drawn to this tree.

“It was a grand tree in the middle of all the other trees. I estimate it was a couple of hundred years old.”

Then came the difficult task of removing the tree, complete with its massive root ball.

“It wasn’t just the case of felling the tree as we usually would,” Mr McKinnon said.

“We spent a lot of time planning how we would remove it and then get it out of the bush.”

Located just off the track used for Nowra Athletics Club’s cross-country long course, along with Paul Schutz, Doug and Ron spent about a week in the bush removing the tree.

It's a project of magnificent proportions but also an intricate process, the likes of which I’ve never been involved in and probably will never do again. - Ron McKinnon

They hatched a plan that included digging a trench around the base of the tree so to not damage the root ball, then through a series of pulley blocks and steel ropes, using two excavators and a skid loader managed to slowly bring the giant to ground.

“It was a massive exercise. It took us more than an hour to slowly lower it to the ground,” Mr McKinnon said.

“We cut it into four pieces - the branch system or head of the tree, the trunk or barrell into two sections and the lower piece of the trunk and its massive root ball.

“The final piece of the root ball on display weighs more than eight tonnes. When we fell it, we still had all the dirt wrapped around the massive entangled root system blackbutts have and it must have weighed close to 12 tonnes.”

But everything didn’t go to plan, the head on the tree didn’t suit and one of the barrels of the tree had a fault and suffered damage.

EYE OPENER: 'Underwood Ark' by National Art School graduate Michael McIntyre in the Sydney CBD. Photo: Steven Siewert:

EYE OPENER: 'Underwood Ark' by National Art School graduate Michael McIntyre in the Sydney CBD. Photo: Steven Siewert:

Luckily, a similar sized tree was located nearby and when it was brought down under the artist and engineer’s watchful eye using the same methods, the locals were able to complete their special order.

Two excavators were then used to carry each part of the tree out of a the bush about a kilometre to the waiting low loaders.

“We had to move the pieces out of a little gully area in the middle of the forest and all the time try and protect it,” Mr McKinnon said.

“It was an intricate process. The likes of which I’ve never been involved in and probably will never do again.”

And if you think that was a challenge, what about the logistics involved for Doug to get the massive portions of the tree into the Sydney CBD on the back of low loaders?

It required two trips, with two trucks, complete with escorts for the wide loads. Streets in the heart of Sydney were closed and two different size cranes needed to lift the massive pieces into place over two weekends.

A number of different permits were needed, including a Sydney air space permit.

“Because the structure was more than five metres off the ground we needed an air space permit,” Mr Schutz said.

“Getting the trucks into the Sydney CBD was a nightmare.

“The road where the root ball sticks out was just 11m wide. We had to get the trucks in there, as well as the crane and getting them set up to lift that sort of weight was tough.

“The two barrel sections were installed one Saturday and the head and root ball the following Saturday.

“I’ve worked with big trees but have never done anything like this, where we had to preserve the tree to this degree

“Seeing it there now, it is impressive.”

“It was a huge operation,” Mr McKinnon said “to see the butts on the back of the truck was amazing. And then for it to make its way into the Sydney CBD, incredible.

“I understand the whole project cost around $550,000.”

Artist Michael McIntyre said his simple and poetic aim was to trigger reflection about the past, remind pedestrians of the natural landscape and connect with the cove's Indigenous guardians.

"It is a pretty unremarkable laneway but has a really remarkable history," Mr McIntyre said.

"Through the years since British settlement, the area has been a centre for ship building, commerce and trade but the image of the stream flowing through the site prior to British invasion was the strongest and most resounding: a pristine landscape full of trees, grasslands, mangroves, birds, animals and home to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

“The tree emerged as a possible symbol for all this."

Mr Schutz and his partner Colleen Brittain and Mr McKinnon and his wife Ruth were among the special guests at last week’s official opening.

“It was incredible to see the blackbutt just hanging there, suspended in the middle of Sydney,” Mr McKinnon said.

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