Meet the Castlemaine teacher and artist who spent five years channeling bushrangers.

Writer: Sarah Harris – Photographer: David Field
If anyone has suffered for Clayton Tremlett’s art of recent years it’s his partner Kathryn Davies.
“The neck beards were the worst,” she says with an eloquent shudder. “The whole family could have done with counselling over Captain Thunderbolt.”
For the past five years the Castlemaine Secondary College art teacher’s facial hair has been frankly criminal as he’s adopted, in turn, the guise of 12 of Australia’s most notorious bushrangers.
Shaving and sculpting his beard and hair to recreate original photographs of celebrated outlaws, Clayton added an intriguing performative component to his latest exhibition at the Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum.
Beards and Influence explores the link between beards, the blokiest of Australian archetypes, and expressions of male identity in contemporary culture.
The exhibition features a series of self-portrait linocuts and reconstructed photographic etchings alongside texts relating to individual bushrangers and actual historical artefacts including death masks and prison records.
“As a culture we are very enamoured of bushrangers, but I am interested in this notion that they were just people too,” Clayton explains.
“I think we – as a nation – still struggle for an identity and there are lots of young people looking for potential role models of identity. You become part of a gang because you all have the same look, but the question for me is around the Ned Kelly look.
“The beard of Ned Kelly is one that is emulated to this day by hipsters and bogans alike, yet there are so many other bushranging beards worthy of investigation for the contemporary male.
“Ned Kelly failed ultimately and was hanged, whereas someone like Frank Gardiner made a lot of money, did some time, collected his loot and then went overseas and lived a comfortable life. Or Harry Power, who was Ned Kelly’s mentor, lived to an old age before finally drowning in a river.”
The artist’s interest in bushrangers is long-standing. “As a child I read a lot about bushranging. I grew up in Wangaratta and my childhood friends were the Lloyds – direct descendants of Tom Lloyd who was a key sympathiser and kind of like the fifth member of the Kelly Gang.”
Since his move to the Central Goldfields eight years ago, Clayton’s work has increasingly begun to reflect his interest in history. Indeed, his whole practice has shifted dramatically since he went to arts school at what was then the Riverina College of Arts Education and is now Charles Sturt University back in the early 1980s.
“I actually started out as a painter of large abstracts,” he reveals. “I studied painting as my major, but over time print-making seemed to be the logical way to progress as my images are quite stark. I would never have thought 15 or 20 years ago that I would largely be doing portraits of people or the kind of work that draws from history.”
Today Clayton’s work is held by in numerous public collections including the Australian National Gallery, but his family was not keen on him studying art, with his father insisting he first qualify as a wool classer so he had the back-up of a “proper job”. However his dad – a cowboy and drover who rode in buckjump shows and rodeos – displayed his own artistic talent as a leather carver.
“At that time it wasn’t illegal to make products out of snakeskin and everyone had a problem with snakes. My childhood laundry was always full of moving bags.
“It was fashionable then to have snakeskin wallets and belts, but my father also carved leather wallets and handbags in that kind of American romantic style. It was kind of kitschy, but it is still a really defined craft practice and there’s a lot of skill involved. Cutting with a scalpel-like knife, there is a direct link with carving lines in print-making.”
After graduating from art school Clayton held various jobs including working for a private conservator company contracted to restore, repair, move and maintain public artworks.
“I always had this agreement with myself that I would only do jobs related to art that gave me different knowledge I could work with,” Clayton says. “That was how I learnt screen printing. I worked for a time as a screen printer hand printing tea towels for Rodriquez.”
After qualifying as a teacher a decade ago, Clayton worked for a year as education officer for the Heide Museum of Modern Art, before moving with his family to Castlemaine.
The move proved artistically fruitful with two solo exhibitions, The Unissued Stamps of Australia (2012) and Father Figures (2010) at La Trobe University Visual Arts Centre, and contributions to several major group exhibitions including the popular Imagining Ned at Bendigo Art Gallery.
Several projects including his limited edition books Crime and Punishment (24 etchings of convicts and their sentences) and Inking up (a series of images recreated from documentation of the body markings of prisoners held in the Old Castlemaine Gaol) have emerged via the rabbit holes of his bushranger research.
The goal of all of these works has been to encourage reflection on identity and self identity.
“It is easy to have a formula that you pass on from generation to generation in education, but history is open to interpretation. I guess I want to encourage people to inquire further.
“What is individual? Letting your beard and hair grow is one way of making a statement. But these days it is a very cultured look. These days you are likely to be drinking a very expensive beer through that beard and wearing skinny jeans. It wasn’t like that in the 1800s.
“I am looking through a window into 12 men and the individuality of those beards is intriguing to me. Some are just facial hair and there is nothing much to them, but many others are looked after, sculpted.
“Captain Moonlite (Andrew George Scott) is perhaps making the boldest statement because his beard is so extreme. I was quite pleased to wear that beard around because I got a lot of response from that one. People, particularly older people, did scoff, and I wonder what it was like for him back in the time because he wasn’t a particularly violent person and there is conjecture he was gay.”
The verb to beard means to oppose face to face, set at defiance or to boldly confront or challenge, but beards can also boost the wearer’s self-perception. Could the most mythologised bushranger of Australian history simply have been trying to hide a boyish face?
“Ned Kelly grew such a large fantastic beard in such a short time. But one of the things people don’t normally associate with Ned Kelly is that he was only five foot eight inches (172cm) tall.
“He wasn’t very big at all, but in all the mythology he was this towering man able to beat people down. When you look at the armour and then the death mask you realise he was this tiny little guy so this whole sense of who he is is inflated by how we choose to perceive him.”
However the artist himself is perceived in future, it will be clean-shaven.
The final step of his long hirsute pursuit, which has seen him morph from Ben Hall, Martin Cash, Isaiah Wild Wright, Harry Power, Owen Suffolk, Daniel (Mad Dog) Morgan, Frank Gardiner, Captain Thunderbolt, Ned Kelly and brothers John and Thomas Clarke, is to shave off his beard to create his own life mask.
“That’s the deal,” says Kathryn without the slightest whisker of doubt.
Beards and Influence is at Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum from July 9 to August 18. For further information visit claytontremlett.com