25 September 2023

Bill Dorman: The breakthrough teacher on a rising tide

| John Thistleton
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man in workshop

In the jewellery-making section of his workshop, Bill Dorman has learned to trust his judgement on when a piece has achieved the desired standard of craftsmanship. Photo: John Thistleton.

Bill Dorman grew up around boats and metalwork. Now he is combining both in ‘Steeling Away’, an exhibition of his craft that has been shaped by 50 years of artistic practice. His life of hammering and polishing rubbed off while he was teaching Mulwaree High School students at risk and struggling to engage with learning.

When their first attempts at shaping metal failed, Bill wouldn’t let them discard the piece. “Never take a backward step,” he told them. They had to keep on hammering.

His success in engaging them in their school work was recognised at the state level in 2006 for teaching excellence, bringing educators to him asking for his winning program – only to be told there was none.

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“Just find a teacher who is passionate and support them,” he said. “That’s it, that’s all you’ve got to do – whether it is cooking, writing, it doesn’t matter.”

Now retired, he looks back on those days nurturing troubled teenagers in his workshop classroom. As a budding artist in his early teens he had nothing like the fraught start in life they did. His childhood was idyllic.

When his mother Rona Dorman, a fibre artist, did the weekly shop she would leave her three sons at the Charlestown Craft Centre at Lake Macquarie. Soon Bill was selling his enamelling, bobby pins, chains and necklaces to his mother’s friends and then to strangers. Little hairpins fetched 50 cents a pop.

His father John Dorman, a welfare officer and amateur photographer, spent holidays and spare time studying plants and birds and taking the family to remote places.

“In hindsight, I probably spent several years of my life under a tent,” Bill said.

Never take a backward step, a mantra Bill Dorman repeated to every high school pupil wanting to discard their mistakes. He follows the same rule, working on something until any shortcoming is resolved. This may take a week or years. Photo: John Thistleton.

“I grew up on Lake Macquarie, I’ve never been able to swim so I’m not a boat person in that way, but all my mates had boats and we were idiots on boats rather than idiots in cars, I suppose,” he said.

Boats are still moored in his mind, from the canoes of Indigenous hunters to the Europeans’ convict ships and fleeing refugees clinging to dinghies. One of his sculptures shows an island on long legs carrying little figures crafted from the sculptor’s fear of climate change.

Young people at risk have long been on his mind. At Mulwaree High School while he was teaching, a counsellor secured a $10,000 grant which she directed to a Thursday afternoon course in metalwork for vulnerable young teenagers.

“It wasn’t about teaching art. It wasn’t about teaching sculpture. It was making things,” said Bill, who led the class and displayed the pupils’ work on the walls. “There is nothing like a 14-year-old kid hanging off an angle grinder, they love it,” Bill said. “They’ll do it all day.”

“Boys want to make sparks, so you let them go.”

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Consequently, what was meant to be a one-term wonder produced such an amazing turnaround with errant children who began turning up on Thursdays, the course earned a place in the school’s annual budget for more than a decade. Auctioning the students’ work became a significant school fundraiser, netting $6000 to $14,000 annually.

One boy spent all year cutting pieces of metal, starting over again and finally making a little bull. Butcher Mick Battiste said as soon as he saw the bull he was happy to bid $500 for it. “It was for a good cause, too,” Mick said. It has sat in the Woolaringa Meats butcher shop in Kinghorne Street in Goulburn, ever since.

“I think that kid learned so much from that,” Bill said. “He had a lesson to learn and it wasn’t about sculpture and I love going to the butchers seeing the bull there.”

A young girl made a classic sheepdog, which fetched at auction $1100 from a real estate agent.

“When someone comes in you don’t know from a bar of soap, and they’re spending $400 or $500 on a piece you (the student) thought was junk, the look on their face was just priceless,” he said.

No stranger to exhibiting his work, Bill nonetheless is keenly speculating on the interest next month at Gallery on Track in his whimsical exploration of metal, heat and hammerings that range from two-metre-high figures to delicate, jewellery-scaled wearable sculpture.

bill with exhibition

Ready for the gallery, wearable sculpture awaits early next month when it will go on public display with larger-scaled sculpture in ‘Steeling Away’. The exhibition’s name was coined by Josephine Dorman while walking with her husband Bill to capture his work, inspired by fleeing refugees. Photo: John Thistleton.

Emerging from his hammering and bending are hundreds of fungi-sized figures, including two that have won his affections and sparked their own stories in his mind.

“Maybe, if grandma buys that, and when the grandkid comes they have one little favourite, and they rub its head and because it’s brass it’ll stay shiny,” he said. “Those things make me smile.”

‘Steeling Away’ opens at Gallery on Track at 2 pm on 7 October.

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