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Over the Fence
Foreigner orders are made illicitly by tradespeople on work time. Depending on the trade and the imagination of the artisan, a foreigner can embrace a great diversity of forms and uses. The essential and consistent element of these objects is however that they are taken for the personal use of the maker: the pot-stand taken home as a gift for a wife or mother; a money box for a child's birthday; trophies of the rites of passage, the 21st birthday, the wedding, the anniversary, retirement; yabby pumps and fishing rods for weekends away from work; even the very tools upon which the maker's trade relied, planes and routers. From the simplicity of an apple corer or pencil case to the complexity of a seemingly infinitely detailed model of a swimming pool, these objects, made curious by their origins, make up another very successful community oriented exhibition curated by Louise Denoon at the Ipswich Regional Gallery.
In this exhibition, as with her earlier two, a priority has been to make connections with the broader community. The foreigners' exhibition has generated very broad community support and interest and has succeeded in bringing people into the gallery who are not regular gallery goers. Certainly the folklore and notoriety of the foreigners is partly responsible for this.
Foreigners are essentially stolen property, made as they are, in this case, on Queensland Rail time, using workshop equipment and scrap materials. They were typically smuggled out of the Railway Workshops in the bottom of a Gladstone bag, or thrown over the Workshop's tall perimeter fence, or for very large items, taken out on a locomotive's test run and left by the track to be retrieved after work. Queensland Rail granted an official amnesty for the duration of the exhibition and this meant that owners of foreigners, whether they had made them themselves, had inherited or been given them, felt able to come forward with these often treasured objects of local history. Despite the amnesty, donors remained wary and the objects are displayed for the most part without their maker's name. If workers were found making a foreigner management policy said it should be destroyed in front of the foreman. In practice, however, it seems that foremen often turned a blind eye, perhaps preferring to think of the positive impact of their manufacture in developing apprentices' skills. The monotony of Workshop tasks could mean that apprentices were not always given instruction in all aspects of their trade. Making a complex foreigner could round out this experience. There was also a very strong ethic attached to the making of foreigners. It was, for instance, an unwritten law that they should be made only after official work orders were met, made only with scrap material, and never sold but always given as gifts or kept for personal use. A foreign order might require skills or equipment found in other areas of the workshop and so the object and its principal maker would meander around the complex following an unconventional production line based on a sharing of skills and enthusiasm. While reflecting the ingenuity of their makers, the foreigner also signals the necessity to make do in hard times. Many were objects that could easily be bought but needed to be made if they were to be had at all.
Photographs of the Railway Workshops in the early to mid-1900s supported the thirty plus foreigners on display, fleshing out the context of the regimented and very formal Workshop where thousands of men worked: foremen in white shirts and ties and tradesmen and apprentices in immaculate overalls, quite literally a hive of industry. The exhibition also served to remind or inform the broader public of the importance of the Ipswich Railway Workshops in the history of industry and technical education in Queensland. In operation for over a century, the Workshops were for long the principal employer in the State. More than three thousand men worked there at the height of post-war productivity. Thousands of apprentices learnt their trades there: boiler makers, fitters and turners, mechanics, cabinet makers, carriage builders, painters, moulders, upholsterers, tinsmiths, sheet metal workers, plumbers, and electricians and more. With this somewhat overwhelming work environment in mind we can see the foreigners themselves as performing a number of interesting functions. Their production must surely have been one way in which a worker was able to draw work and home together, at the same time as throwing off the anonymity of mass production via the assertiveness of the self-declared tradesman. No matter how humble, or how useful and specialist the object made, the foreigner is able to represent the worker, insisting that the institution of work make way for thoughts of home and family, other projects, other roles as husband, handy-man, fisherman, clever dad, mate's mechanic. Here lies some of the appeal and intrigue of the foreigners for they help us glimpse a human side which underlines the lives of workers and a certain cheekiness of spirit which attests to these men's ability to maintain a sense of self at a time when work practices and environments were undoubtedly more rigid and confining than they are today.