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Featured Brett ‘Mon’ Garling. Photo: Dubbo Weekender/Alexandria Kelly Brett ‘Mon’ Garling. Photo: Dubbo Weekender/Alexandria Kelly

Renowned artist and sculptor Brett ‘Mon’ Garling talked to NATALIE HOLMES about a life in clay, his love of bone-collecting and the founding father of an Aussie gemstone.

Dressed head to toe in khaki work gear, including sturdy boots and a worn leather belt, it’s obvious Brett Garling’s occupation takes him outdoors. He could be a landscaper or a ranger, but it’s his work as a plein-air artist and sculptor which has brought recognition to his door.

Garling, or Mon as he is widely known, works in a studio adjacent to his Wongarbon gallery. It’s a converted stable, he says, and his affinity with the natural world is evident in the choice of reading material on the bookshelf and various animal skulls picked up in his travels.

Although he takes a no-nonsense approach to his work and the art world in general, Garling’s talent and passion is clear. He’s self-taught and the unusual nickname was bestowed on him as a boy, when his fascination with anatomy led him to scouring the ground in search of macabre souvenirs of the deceased wildlife variety. His nickname Mon, he explains, while lovingly tending to a bird of prey he is currently sculpting, is short for Monster.

Born in the coastal town of Pambula, Garling later moved to the bush, and spent a large chunk of his childhood in the far western NSW settlement of Lightning Ridge. It was here his link with the legend of Charlie Nettleton was forged and it’s the reason for this visit to the Garling Gallery. The renowned artist has been commissioned by the Lightning Ridge Historical Society to create a life-size sculpture in Nettleton’s image. It’s been a difficult task – Garling has only a single ancient copy of a blurred photograph taken in 1938 as reference – but the end result is quite stunning. Nettleton is about to be cast in bronze, but for now, his realistic image has been moulded using brown artist’s modelling clay over a steel frame, taking just a week and a half to sculpt.

The model portrays Nettleton’s work-weary features and weather-beaten appearance, along with the pride of a life lived to the fullest. He leans on his pick, with his other hand casually resting on his belt.

It’s an important work which will commemorate Nettleton’s place as the founder of the black opal industry in this part of the world. In fact, it is believed to be the only site where this type of gemstone is found.

“He sunk the first mine at Lightning Ridge,” Garling explains.

“He was a prospector and miner and was the first to find a nodule of opal.”

Much like Garling’s life and work, Nettleton’s story is intriguing.

According to the Lightning Ridge Historical Society, he “was at Mt Browne in the north-western part of the state prior to White Cliffs”.

Lured by the promise of gold elsewhere, he hit the road on foot.

“In 1901, he walked towards Bathurst on the trail of gold. Near Wallangulla, he saw unusual, nodular black opal and the potential in it. A syndicate of local businessmen paid him to sink a shaft at McDonald’s Six Mile but it was a duffer.”

Garling takes up the story.

“He was on his way to the Bathurst camp when he stopped. He walked from White Cliffs to Lightning Ridge where he was the first to dig a mine or put in a claim,” the sculptor explains.

Additional information from the historical society reveals that “it was late in 1903 that he walked back to White Cliffs and sold a parcel of black opal to Ted Murphy, who later became the first resident opal buyer at the Ridge”.

“Many White Cliffs miners followed their mate back to the new opal rush and Nettleton’s expertise earned him further respect. The 3-Mile village site was known as Nettleton, even after people moved into the surveyed ‘New Town’ at the beginning of World War I. The village was officially renamed Lightning Ridge in 1963.

“It is thanks to Nettleton’s knowledge that black opal came to the world’s notice.”

Garling describes Nettleton as the founding father of Lightning Ridge. Indeed, much of its history is steeped in his activity as a miner.

In a History of Lightning Ridge penned by opal researcher Len Cram, he explains that Nettleton was destined to stamp his name upon the annals of Australian opal history.

Cram writes: “Robert Moore, the manager of Muggarie Station, known now as Angledool, made the first record of pretty coloured stones from Lightning Ridge in 1873. A former Ravenswood gold miner, he picked up the stones on the Nebea Ridges and sent them to Sydney for evaluation, only to be informed they were of no commercial value.

“The next reported find was in 1880 when Aboriginals brought topaz to the Parkers, the owners of Bangate Station. Mrs Parker, thinking they were diamonds, sent her brother Ted Field and a station hand named Hudson to investigate the area around Lightning Ridge where she suspected the Aboriginals had found them. They discovered nothing as clear as the Aboriginals’ stones, but found a number of other attractive stones. However, the variety of the stone and its value were not followed up.

“It wasn’t until 1887, when a piece of opal was discovered in a gravel pit which is now part of the famous Nine Mile Field that it came to the notice of the Mines Department.”

According to Cram, Jack Murray, a boundary rider on Dunumbral Station found a floater late in 1900. The discovery cost him his job, as the station manager didn’t take kindly to him digging up the station in his spare time.

When Nettleton arrived on the scene in 1902, the aforementioned syndicate was formed by Joe Beckett, the owner of Weetalibah Inn.

“Nettleton was paid one pound five shillings per week... and started his first shaft. It was a duffer and early in 1903 he moved across to the shallow Nobby where Murray and the others were getting good stones.”

Although the group’s first potential buyer was unimpressed with their haul and the syndicate was dissolved, Cram’s account indicates that Nettleton did not give up.

“In 1903, at the age of 41, Nettleton set out for White Cliffs with Jack Murray.”

Catching up with friends there, he must have mentioned something of the perceived value in the ridges around the settlement where he’d been working as many of them followed him back to the town.

It was the sale to Murphy that really opened up the fields. Undeterred by disputes with landholders which involved alleged water poisoning and fence blockades, the early miners, led by Nettleton, pushed on with their pursuit and the community of Nettleton Flat became the precursor to the modern-day settlement of Lightning Ridge.

“Since that time, opal has been widely mined there,” Garling adds.

“I go out there frequently (to paint). Lightning Ridge is such a different, unique landscape.”

While he grew up in the town where Nettleton gained acclaim, Garling still had to really dig into the personality of his subject, so to speak.

“Knowing his story is half the battle; from there you can create the character.”

Garling believes the revolutionary miner would have led a fairly isolated existence.

“He would have been a bachelor all his life. I don’t think a woman could tolerate that kind of lifestyle. Such a harsh lifestyle tends to wear a bloke down. The Ridge was a pretty wild place, it was real frontier country. Once you’re there, opal fever gets you.”

And as Mon Garling dons his hat and stands beside his model of Charlie Nettleton, images of that fiery and mysterious black stone continue to swirl around, along with the tale of two lives intertwined.

• Once completed, Mon Garling’s life-size bronze sculpture of Charlie Nettleton will stand in front of Heritage Cottage at 7 Morilla Street, home of the Lightning Ridge Historical Society. The word Morilla comes from Moorilla, the Aboriginal word for opal ridges.

A lucky charm?

The word opal comes from Sanskrit meaning valuable stone. There are many stories pertaining to whether the stone brings luck, but it is generally thought to be good for those born in October as it is their birthstone. It is apparently bad luck to buy an opal for yourself.

Mining terminology

Duffer: A mine or shaft that produces no opal.

Ratter: A word from the early days of opal mining for a thief who enters a claim known to be producing opal, usually at night or when the owner is away.

Nodule: a small, rounded mass or lump.

Floater: Pieces of rock that have been broken off and moved from their original location by natural forces such as frost or glacial action.

Source: Lightning Ridge information website 1997