Lismore artist Geoff Hannah has turned his hand, lathe and other intricate tools to making exquisite timber cabinets.
Lismore artist Geoff Hannah has turned his hand, lathe and other intricate tools to making exquisite timber cabinets. Marc Stapelberg

Gallery hopes to keep work of top drawer artisan

Craftsman Geoffrey Hannah gently but eagerly opens doors and drawers of the magnificent Hannah Cabinet.

His counterparts stand around and nervously put their hands up as he passes around the pieces of his cabinet.

"I'm not holding it," they say to Geoff, fearful of dropping a part or even simply smudging their fingerprints on the lovingly polished wood.

He pulls countless drawers out from behind one of the doors, reaches into the cabinet and feels around until he finds what he's looking for - one of the secret drawers.

After the showing, he slots the many pieces back into place with confidence and quick hands, closing it up as everyone in close proximity breathes a sigh of relief.

It is too much responsibility to be holding a piece of the $1 million cabinet that took six- and-a-half years to build. Truly a masterpiece, the Australian-made cabinet is crafted from 34 different types of timbers and veneers, four rare species of shell and 17 types of precious and semi-precious stones.

Hung on the walls of the room in Lismore Regional Gallery are artworks, but one piece demands your gaze - the cabinet that stands loudly behind the rope and against the wall.

Now, a campaign has been launched to keep it there.

Bringing Home The Hannah Cabinet is an initiative to raise $1 million to buy the piece to keep it for the gallery's permanent collection. If successful, it would be a first for regional Australia.

The campaign seeks 90 individuals or philanthropic and corporate supporters to sponsor one of the 140 drawers, ranging from $5000 to $100,000.

With brimming pride and a good dose of enthusiasm, Geoff tells how he made every intricate petal or feather from a sliver of wood.

"When you work on something for six years it just consumes you all over," he says.

"When the last piece is done and you sit back and there isn't anything else to do, it's a real lull in the system.

"It takes me a month to get over that feeling."

He says whether you're into woodwork or art or gilding "there is something in that cabinet for someone who's going to be there".

Native flora and fauna decorate the cabinet. Geoff explains he draws from real life where he can.

"Once I'm happy with it I trace it and cut every feather and petal out individually with a knife. Some people say 'Oh you're an artist' but no, I work hard to draw," he says, looking over at his designs.

He later hands out his original pencil sketches on paper. They live in one of the drawers of the cabinet. He holds the sketches up to the finished products.

It is spectacular.

Geoff sits with his hands relaxed in his lap, his body angled - perhaps unconsciously - toward the cabinet while he explains its inner workings.

"The mechanisms and the secret compartments have to be worked out so it's there but no one can see it.

"The first thing, when someone sees it, they always say 'Oh, I would've worked that out'. But when you have a secret compartment it's got to be easy to access - you can't have a screwdriver to get into it. It has all got to be 'push this and do that' so it all operates.

"In the old days that's how people hid things - because there wasn't a safe, they used to hide things in cabinets."

Also inside the cabinet is a framed piece of Marie Antoinette's "favourite summer fabric" given to Geoff in 1980.

"It's little kids who come in, sit on the floor and look at it and love it every time you open a drawer.

"And that's a good feeling.

"But it's not uncommon for someone to come in and be very upset when they see it. They get overwhelmed with it - even men. That's a good feeling that you can make something for someone else to love."

He says every time he sees his work now he's really happy. This is obvious immediately when in his company, but it took him about a year and time away from it to be able to sit back and finally think 'I'm happy with that'.

To move the cabinet, it must be taken apart - which is apparently the easy part with no screws in place.

But it was a challenge to make all that work, Geoff says.

"There's that much working out to do and I don't think I could do it again. I think I've lost it," he says.

The many drawers of the Hannah Cabinet are documented, to a point.

 

Geoff Hannah, The Hannah Cabinet, 2009.
Geoff Hannah, The Hannah Cabinet, 2009. Contributed

"When I got it back from Canberra, where it was on display for three years, I pulled it apart to re-wax and polish it and found a drawer I hadn't polished - I forgot it was there!" he laughs.

Love for his family and the craft he grew up learning made the labour of his pieces lighter.

"When I was 17 I found these adoption papers in a tin. They were mine. I said to Mum, 'What's this all about?'. She said, 'Oh you're happy though, aren't you love?'. And I said, 'Yeah, I am'."

He recalls the time with an obvious fondness for his parents.

"Ever since that day we never spoke about it.

"But I had the most beautiful upbringing and couldn't have landed on my feet any better than them going to Coraki and getting me out of the hospital when I was a baby.

"I owe it to them. That's why it was named the Hannah Cabinet."

Growing up watching his father work with timber and living in a sawmill house below the mill at Busbys Flat, Geoff said he used to "muck around with wood".

"It was a beautiful journey, it still is."

For the past two years he has been working on a jewellery cabinet that looks like a Georgian building for an exhibition set for next year.

"And then I've got to make a table for it to sit on," he says laughing, knowing he has a lot of work ahead of him.

In 1980, Geoff was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to explore European cabinetry from the 17th century to the 19th century and has since taught his craft all over the country.

He teaches groups of six students three days a week in Lismore as part of his own workshop and some of them have been there for 20 years.

The waiting list is six years.

In March last year, Lismore was flooded from the Cyclone Debbie weather event.

Geoff lives in a flood-prone zone in Lismore and had to move the cabinet upstairs piece by piece. And then came the worst part of his whole creation experience.

"The finials on the top were missing. Oh that was really drama. I had two weeks to find them or make eight new ones.

"I was on the edge I tell you. The relief of finding them (after scouring the house top to bottom) - I still haven't got over that feeling.

"The birds I loved doing, the carving, the gilding. Every aspect was a delight to do."

For more information on Bringing Home the Hannah Cabinet, visit hannahcabinet.com


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