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I was nervous as I started my small clay sketches of Australia’s first female Prime Minister, using only YouTube and photos from the web as reference. It was impossible to get a sitting with the PM for quite a few months.. My sketches or maquettes are quite small, anything from 20cm to 35cm. I do them fast and put them aside quickly. Normally they are really bad, but with redeeming features … the setting of the eyes correct on one, the lips and chin good on the next. I think it is harder to do a sculpture portrait of a woman than a man …. the features are softer, less pronounced. I wanted to get the bust finished early in her term.

In my studio with some of my rather unsuccessful maquettes. Photo: David Geraghty

Through my good mates in the Canberra bureau of The Australian, I got the PM’s agreement to a long sitting in her Melbourne office during the holidays. She was catching up on paperwork, and allowed me to sit straight opposite her desk and draw in my sketchbook for as long as I liked, while she worked. I worked hard trying capture things that you just can’t see in photos and videos. It was completely quiet, the PM was engrossed in work, we did not speak, and she was not disturbed by anyone else the whole time. She was moving documents from a huge “in” pile to smaller “out” pile with ferocious concentration. When she had a tea-break, I asked her if I could take a 360 degree set of photos, which I did. I asked if I could measure her head and face with sculptors’ callipers, which we had arranged. She was very patient while I took all the conventional measurements described in Edouard Lanteri’s classic 18th century teaching book Modelling and Sculpting the Human Figure, which I had studied. She laughed when – surprise surprise – I found she was long from the back of her head to the tip of her nose. The photos came out well and had a good presence, which was a relief as it was the only sitting I would have with her.

Next morning I started a 110% size bust, and remade it several times over a couple of months without really getting anywhere. The “Lanteri” measurements I had taken were sometimes a helpful correction to errors and speeded the process of setting up a fairly blank head in clay, but really sculpture comes down to what the eye sees and mind constructs.

Curiously, the first thing I really got right was her eyes. I built the detail of the face out from there and it looked better. Working “in the white heat” I finished a respectable likeness in about five or six hours of work, hardly looking at the photos and maquettes. I had put the image of her face into my memory. You know you have achieved this when you wake up at night and find that image projected on the back of your eyelids.

I felt she looked too untroubled. I added some wrinkles to her forehead but this just made her look old. I was adding clay to her forehead in pretty rough bumps and on the spur of the moment I decided to leave it that way. To my eye it expressed the idea of a person under pressure.

I packed up the sculpture in a secure frame, lugged it into the back of my Subaru Impreza, and took it to down to Cheltenham to Bill Perrin who I have worked with before, at his foundry, the Perrin Sculpture Foundry. I asked him to make me a rubber mould and a plaster. I shellacked the plaster, and polished it with dark brown boot polish, ready for preview with the Ballarat City Council. With their approval, I would get it cast in bronze. (Under my contract with them, at my suggestion, they could reject it, in which case I get to keep it).

Left to right: Gillard’s brow, packed up for the trip to Cheltenham, the shellacked plaster cast of Gillard waiting in the Ballarat Town Hall for approval

The Ballarat councillors approved it enthusiastically. At the foundry, wax is painted into the two halves of the rubber mould, thus making a perfect wax copy of the clay original. The wax is only a few millimetres thick and completely hollow. It is then encased in a mould of plaster mixed with “grog” (brick-dust), inside and out. It goes into the kiln and the wax melts and flows out. The mould is upturned and molten bronze is poured in, to fill the narrow void. When it cools the mould is broken open and the bronze revealed. It is cleaned with a brush and pressure spray and …. bingo! You have a bronze head. It’s hollow and the bronze is only a few millimetres thick.

Left to right: the mould, the bronze after it is broken out of its plaster and grog cocoon, the cleaned bronze is sprayed by Bill Perrin with an acid cocktail to create a patina.

With all my busts, I supply the Ballarat Council with a plaster caste and the rubber mould for safe-keeping. This enables them to have a new version made if the bust is vandalized or stolen. The Whitlam bronze (sculpted by Vic Greenhalgh) was stolen by vandals and could not be found. I’m told that during the droughts which occurred some years later, the head was found in a dried-up dam. As far as I know, the Whitlam bust in the Prime Ministers Avenue had already been replaced by a new one made from Vic’s original plaster.

After she left office, Julia Gillard agreed to unveil her bust and a very large and enthusiastic crowd gathered to watch the ceremony. Ms Gillard made an entertaining speech about a range of topics and how unnerving it is to sit for your portrait. I spoke briefly, regretting that I had unnerved her, and Catherine King, the Labor Federal Member for Ballarat, spoke glowingly. I was pleased with this portrait, as I think it makes a powerful image and describes a person of strong beliefs and grit.

Listen to Danny Tran’s ABC report and interviews about the portrait: