Sawdust in his veins
by SANDI MILLER
20th September 2021
RYAN GASKETT HAS spent the last 10 years with the smell of sawdust and two stroke in his nostrils.
The filmmaker has been filming chainsaw artist Leigh Conkie since 2012 for the feature length documentary Leigh, which will have its premiere screening at ACMI in December.
Ryan first met the iconic Eltham artist while at film school.
He said he had always loved looking at the sculptor’s “outdoor gallery”, which is a feature of everyone’s commute along Eltham’s Main Road, so he jumped at the chance to interview him.
“We had to make a short documentary, and I chose to do stories from the neighbourhood, and a friend introduced me to his neighbour, and I interviewed him for two hours and made a 10-minute documentary about him,” he told WD Bulletin.
Ryan said the initial short film could not do the chainsaw artist justice, as there was so much more he wanted to tell about Leigh, so the initial interview was the first of many filming sessions they had over several years.
In late 2014, Ryan filmed Leigh sculpting a female asylum seeker holding a baby.
Then, Ryan said, they did a late-night installation of the work on the lawn of The Age’s then headquarters in Collins Street, Melbourne.
Within hours, security guards had removed the sculpture, but the installation had made its point — raising awareness of refugee issues and generating thousands of “Likes” online.
While Leigh Conkie is known around Eltham for his chainsaw art, Ryan said the film is not really about that, it is about the man behind the artist.
“He’s had a pretty hard life, he was abused as a child, had been in a major car accident, and he was in a pretty down place”.
Ryan said at one stage, Leigh lost the passion for his art and was just producing playground features for the money.
The bulk of the film was recorded between 2014 and 2016, when Leigh made the decision to turn his life around.
“He was going through a pretty low point in his life at the time, and he decided to give himself a goal and go to Japan to climb Mount Fuji,” he said.
Ryan said while that was a pretty “out there” thing to do, anyone who knew Leigh thought it was totally something that he would do.
“I actually have the moment he made the decision to do it on camera, he made his mind up while we were in the middle of an interview,” the filmmaker said.
From then, he stopped drinking and started running and working out and eating healthy — although he wouldn’t give up the cigarettes.
Ryan said it was a big deal for Leigh to attempt something as big as climbing Mt Fuji, because at the time he could barely walk to the local 7Eleven.
But Ryan was there with Leigh every step of the way, documenting the long road to his health and his art.
Originally crowd sourced through Pozible, the filmmaker managed to get a host of local collaboration on the film, including local composer Charly Harrison scoring the documentary, and including music from the Teskey Brothers, and Gotye.
The film was originally due to be premiered in October, but due to COVID, the screening has been moved to December, and has already sold out.
A second ACMI screening in February has just been announced, and if you get in quick, tickets can be booked via Eventbrite.
Photos courtesy: RYAN GASKETT