Essay : The Sculptor of the West

On Being a Sculptor of the West

How do you separate out and define the influences of nature-nurture and the path deliberately chosen by an individual in a mid-career artist like Dean Smith? How does this current step in the family line of builders and artisans, engineers and artists produce the particularly charismatic character of Dean Smith Dancing Bear?

The inherited traits of the Smith are both palpable and intangible. The physical body for one, acquired skills and the cultural knowledge, the position in the community and through this contribution to the public discourse, the ability to engage his community through meaning and art.

Roots are Important

Dean Smith always introduces himself as an artist by trade. The Smiths, a working class mob from the west of Melbourne regard ‘trade’ as a chief designator of who you are. Dean was an artist from day one, recognised and encouraged by his Nan. He was drawing and singing and cleaning bricks to build the family home by the age of three. In the 1970’s you had to clean a lot of bricks to buy a StarWars figure. He was already influenced by the pop sculpture of George Lucas and the inherited lineage of his master builder father and forefathers.

Dean was born in Footscray Hospital. His father, born in a house in Yarraville. Dad was pulled out of high school at 15 to build churches and Mason Halls around Footscray and Yarraville with his dad (Dean’s Pop). Pop’s father was a train engineer at Flinders Street. On his Dad’s Mum’s side, Dean’s great uncle painted the lights gold at Parliament House on Spring Street, and that man’s Grandfather was awarded an art prize by Her Majesty Queen Victoria back in the old country.

As a teenager Dean cycled for the Footscray Pro’s, but as soon as he was able to drive cycling became less of an escape and he chose art over sport. He was one of the first to graduate from the new Art and Design Cert I&II course at Footscray TAFE, and interestingly, the only one of his class to actually graduate. For Dean Smith, art was not something to do while you thought about what you were going to do, art was a vocation. He later went on to do his Bachelor of Fine Art in sculpture at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) which incorporated a life changing semester as an exchange student at The Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI).

The Physical Body of the Artist

For a hyperactive young man with energy to burn and Popeye forearms, working on a jack-hammer all day to live while studying was easy, a piece of cake. But it was missing the sweetness of creativity that the sculptor’s life offered. He was always able to find work while abroad on building sites. His main aim with building was to support his artwork, but in doing so he acquired an ingrained knowledge of structural techniques, technical trades involved in metalwork (mould making, casting, oxy and arc welding), fine cabinet maker’s craftsmanship and a knowledge of the personality of timber. His dad taught him how to use a chainsaw, but Bruce Armstrong (BA(Art)) ( Dean’s lecturer at the VCA showed him how to use it to make sculpture. But they don’t teach logistics at the VCA, or how to drive a crane. Working at the monumental scale was an undertaking over and above the limits of the school studio.

It’s All About Lifting Sculpture into Space

To get big, I mean to get really big, you need big ideas and big tools. The artist Dean Smith Dancing Bear is a pretty big man. He’s got big hands and he feels the size of the idea at a scale larger than the human body. This is something that does not suit many artists. How do you imagine you’ll fit that thing through the gallery door? And while you’re at it… will the floor even be able to support it? Your work can only be as big as the tools and materials allow.

Dean built his first crane at the age of 17 and still uses it today. He now also has a little 4-Tonne crane truck called Thor on a 1965 International that he’s restoring. He believes that the master should be able to do every job, but his years as a Site Foreman have taught him to delegate as well.

Dale Eldred ( was the Head of the Sculpture Department at KCAI and became Dean’s mentor. He had a similar crane truck with which he did some massive works and had a similar imposing physical presence (ex. college football fullback). He also had an Architect wife and made monumental works in the public space.

Dean wanted to levitate. He met a scientist on the plane whilst on his way to the US for the first time who showed him how to do it, easy.

“This is how magnets working in a circle can hold a metal body suspended.”

So that’s what he wanted to do when he got there, to KCAI. He learned how to make a magnetic missile cannon in the library’s engineering section (, then he made one, and hung it off Eldred’s crane, powered it up with the arc welder and shot pellets into the wall 20ft away.

“I’m going to send you back on the next ship if you don’t get your ass into gear, boy”, Dale said and he took Dean down to the National Compressed Steelyard and introduced him to Mark Ibe who supplied the raw materials to the artists. Dean was strangely attracted to getting into a metal suit and being picked up by the giant magnetic crane, but doing that would get you a dose of radiation poisoning. Instead he made a rotating train sculpture, a steel performance piece with one guy hanging off the front on the camera, one running the projections, a man rotating it and Dean Smith Dancing Bear in the centre of it all driving energy into the piece.

It was synchronicity that two Australian’s, Dean from Werribee and Stelarc ( from Melton happened to land in Kansas City at the same time. Both mad as cut snakes and terribly entertaining, they became the flavour of the semester and the young Dean found himself at the centre of a new movement of performance art in that town. While he was there Dean became close to Eldred, ended up with the 3rd highest grade point average in the class even though he was half a year behind the Americans; he was involved Stelarc’s robotic arm project and helped to install Eldred’s pieces in the Jane Weiner Gallery, an important gallery in Kansas City during the 1980s and 90s.

Returning to Australia to complete his degree, Dean made the infamous “Space Simulator”, the fixings of which you can still see bolted in the floor at the VCA. A bottle recycle bin careened through its arc in the air, the single spinning axis a rotating arm that spanned a 6m Ø circle. He performed at the graduate exhibition, with projections and the screaming naked form of Dean Smith Dancing Bear inside, strapped into the aeroplane seat that he got from Uncle Phil the upholsterer. People cheered, loved it, heads of department were terrified by it, by performance art that is…There was a major difference to how art that involved the actual, living figure and “figurative” sculpture of form were received between the Kansas City and Melbourne. As a performer who loved the stage, not an actor but a sculptor entertainer, Dean Smith Dancing Bear saw the opportunity for his body to become sculpture and took it.

The born front-man, Smith had the ability to croon ( that from listening to his idiosyncratic drawl, you wouldn’t think he could possibly posses. His mum did name him after Dean Martin after all, there must have been some kind of crush going on in the 1970s.


Sculptures in the Bush

Spending time with the Sioux Indians in the Nevada Desert had calmed down Smith’s ego somewhat after the frenetic pace of L.A. where he spent a year as a cabaret singer in 1998. Dean stood at a crossroad.

“I visited sculptor Jeff Rentschler in New York and he took me to Jeff Koons’ ( studio where they needed artists to slave out for the master, get some good lines on their CV. I took one look at the conditions they had to work in, cramped up in the corner, no space, no ventilation, sniffing resin and being exposed all sorts of harmful crap just so you could live on nothing and pay a New York rent.”

Dean had already spent enough years in dubious OH&S conditions building at the Carlton United Brewery in the 1980’s to know that the body has a finite capacity to process poisons and absorb the damage caused by the work that it is required of it. Dean has always maintained that if he is going to spend his body, it will be for his art. It was definitely time for a change of scenery.

Dean left America and turned towards the archetypal bushman. Bruce Armstrong, does that ‘country, blokey’ thing too. Dean is one of the small group of contemporary fineartist-chainsaw carvers in Australia that pushed the medium past it’s “craft” roots. When you are an artist who picks up a traditional medium like chainsaw carving you must deliberately touch on the question of National Identity.

What does it mean then, to be Australian? That is a discourse into which public art enters. Overseas it’s something exotic… we definitely are different. It’s an oversimplification to put us in the Australian Exhibit at the Kansas City Zoo (Dean did that too, singing colonial folk songs; like he does at the Swan Hill Food and Wine Festival every year). Further investigation requires a deeper and more layered reading of who we are as a post-colonial society. This is where a shift has occurred in the gaze, so we are no longer just the observed exhibit, but observers of our selves in our own right. In order to develop art that contributes to the debate of who we are as a nation; to make some art that uses our vernacular, some personal investment is required, some commitment. Smith’s career went “bush”.

In regional Victoria chainsaws and big lumps of wood were in abundance. This readily available tool required no electricity, it allowed Dean to live off the grid and have the gypsy freedom to move around and be known on a personal level throughout the state. He carved as performance at town festivals and made appearances on mainstream television.

Dean remarks, “As the years go on, its getting harder to source big chunks. Some of the biggest trees in Victoria were in Gippsland, [refer Poowong grant in the CV] they were chopped down in the early 2000’s. People were just chopping it up for firewood, same as the giant 1000 year old Red Gums in the Grampians. Timber carved sculpture will take on a whole new meaning when the raw materials are precious, no longer around to just burn up for heat.”

Dean made a good living making sculpture for half a dozen years in country Victoria. His Dancing Bear Sculpture Gallery in Dunkeld made a significant contribution to the development of the art industry in that town. He reckons about 300 works that now sit in private collections between the years 2001 and 2007. It was his close friend Vali Myers that pushed him to be so productive. He met Vali towards the end of her life, and when he asked her to support him and use her notoriety to promote his work she told him, “I’m not going to support you, you’ve got to support yourself, you have to be prolific, get your work out there on your own.”

He was evacuated from the fire in the Grampians in 2004 and wasn’t able to return afterwards so he eventually went east to Taggerty to continue his work. He spent time in the shadow of the Cathedral Ranges and carved. He built a little gallery and a studio at the Pioneer Settlement, got his horses, and like Tina Turner resumed his stage name, The Bear had been with him in dreams since early childhood.

The Dancing Bear is Out There Somewhere

In the dream the bear paces around and around an empty cage, in an early industrial age circus, Kodiak Island, Russian territory. The bear has worn a deep rut in the ground of the carousel with his relentless pacing. The repetition and the rotation whorl into a violent climax and the bear mauls the trainers, makes his escape and becomes the free Dancing Bear. Dean’s Native American influences allowed him to grapple with the totemic nature of animal representation. The bear dream showed cruelty towards nature, ideas of power and awe, courage and respect.

This period of his work saw the creation of actual totem poles, many totemic animals, portraits of beloved dogs and horses and animals in which collectors and the artist found elements of identity. Careful studies were made of non-human physiology. Parts were collected and embalmed for future study. An emu head may or may not have been left in his ex-girlfriend’s parents’ freezer, no malice intended – just a sculptor’s collection of natural references.

Picture the Dancing Bear belting up the Black Spur on his Kawasaki GPZ9, through the 3rd generation forests of Tree Ferns and Victorian Ash (planted in the 1940’s by Australian- German residents, detained during WWII). This time in Taggerty saw the creation of the Lion, the Bear and the Eagle and others, for a solo exhibition at the Yarra Sculpture Gallery. The Emu, a 1.8m high piece of carved Red Gum from Hamilton area stood on a metre high Red Gum base by the side of the road to attract visitors to his gallery.

In the 2009 Black Saturday fires 100m high flames ripped down the road from Buxton (home of the Buxton Burger and the famous Cathedral Burger), through the Pioneer Settlement and over the Cathedral Ranges, stripping everything in its path.

Through the year leading up to the fires, the local psychics, shamans and hippies had been coming up to Dean, visiting his studio and quietly mentioning that his time in Taggerty was drawing to a close. In 2008 he had an altercation with the landlord, met Jess Herzberg and moved out of Taggerty. He and Jess had both bought tickets to Paris before they met, fatefully to leave within a week of each other. So they embarked on their romantic tour of Europe. While they were at a gallery opening in wee fookin’ Derry, Ireland, they got news from a man, for all the world looking like a little Irish leprechaun cliché, that Taggerty was burning to the ground.

Of his stock of spare wood and some small Cypress pieces that were left after his relocation, the model for the Bear head and a marquette of the owner playing golf, practically nothing remained. Only the golfer’s little legs were left. The fire was so hot that it melted the windows in the van and the glass was found slumped over the seats. Now, people prize Red Gum as the best firewood (somewhat ironically in this instance) because it burns slowly and smoulders for hours. On the road outside the site we found the base of the Emu – a pile of charcoal only good for drawing. But the plucky Emu was discovered lying on its side, totally unscathed except in the leg area, which had been burned off. The Emu is currently on loan to the Mansfield Zoo. The resident goose has fallen in love with it and guards it day and night.

Back in the West

After that harrowing experience Dean spent a few years in the city making architecture ( with Jess . Dean could then write “Site Foreman” on his loan application and goad the bank into funding a studio on a piece of land of his own. Back in the west, in the land of the setting sun, Dean and Jess live and work between the office in North Melbourne and the studio in Staffordshire Reef, just south of Ballarat.

So the Dancing Bear returns to the city, returns to bronze, returns to figurative study, and rather than dwelling on the melancholy realities of the human world, he presents a series of romantic portraits with a narrative of joyful antics, flamboyant moments and intimate expressions. These are currently on show at the Convent Gallery in Daylesford. The intention there is to demonstrate the solidity and sensuality of flesh, along with the physical mass of bronze, both of which he then subverts with hyperactive intensity.

Through making the bronzes Dean developed a relationship with Armando, a 5th generation bronze founder from Milan who cast for Salvador Dali. A man who’s energy belies his age. Dean’s driving personality and Werribee Italian served him well and the two have bonded closely. Armando is currently working to set Dean up a with commission for a big bronze in the main square of Port Moresby.

Work in Progress

Dean inspires that kind of passion in people. He’s a man who makes things happen, not just somebody who talks a lot about what he is going to do. He is currently working with Tract Architects to provide 5 totem poles for the Valley Lakes Estate stairway in the old Essendon Quarry. The piece involves basalt excavated from site and represents the Peregrine Falcon totem. For the clients it was important to recognise the emblematic significance of a local indigenous bird. To create a totem refers to thousands of years and cultures from all over the world who have made the connection between an animal, a place and an emotional resonance.

The Peregrine is the guardian of this region. Its solitary roaming existence speaks of freedom. On the basalt cliffs of Valley Lakes Estate it sits as a watcher and a protector. Its acute perception reminds us to use our mental capabilities to the fullest, to make deliberate moves, use precision timing and strike with force when necessary pursue our goals and aspirations.

The form of this piece is semantically both totem and totemic, both sign and symbol. It shows the Peregrine Falcon in realistic detail. In Dean Smith Dancing Bear’s Kingston grant (refer image attached) he was instructed by the client group, a council of Aboriginal Elders and the arts officer of the Kingston council, to abstract the form down to its basic symbols – male/ female, sun/ moon, egg/ spiral. The context of the proposal at the junction between the Nicholson Street Mall and Paisley Street would require a detail reading and response to the site and an engagement with the Footscray community, already shown here to be part of Smith’s personal and professional narrative, as well as the broader community in terms of public discourse. At the same time, practical responsibilities to the community must be met, and all Dean Smith Dancing Bear’s work responds to his OH&S obligations to be safe, non-climbable and to cause no harm.

A successful piece of sculpture here would activate and make place. It would provide a shelter, latent and manifest in nature, so that the shelter would read as a safe and welcoming centre, a hearth where daily life congregates in its simple and mundane routines of shopping, meeting, and just being. The life of the street is enduring. Bronze is an enduring medium. The potential to last for 100s of years, not just ten is the crux of sustainability; to make once without the requirement for alteration and replacement. This sense of permanence pervades the worlds great cities though their public art and Footscray is poised for growth in this direction.

Past, Present, Future

In 1990 Footscray Council was the first public organisation to support Dean Smith in buying one of his paintings. Back in 1989 Dean did some part time work at the NGV installing with Kuniyasu Takamasa ( While there he met Albert Tucker (, who was having his retrospective. Out of this meeting came a painting, a self portrait of Dean with a camel, heavily influenced by Tucker’s work.

In 2013 the “sculptor by trade” from the west, Dean Smith Dancing Bear, is making a significant contribution to life, his art and the physical world around him. In his own words, he’s “cranking it.”

In 2013 Footscray might give the “sculptor by trade” from the west Dean Smith Dancing Bear further consideration as he is perfectly positioned through his history, experience and skill to make a significant contribution to life in the Nicholson Street Mall.

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