Tom Bass

News from the Archive

Tom Bass AM honoured by The University of Sydney

16th April, 2009

Tom Bass AM, Australia’s most prolific public sculptor was honoured at a graduation ceremony in April by The University of Sydney with the degree of Doctor of Visual Arts (honoris causa).

Awarded in recognition of Bass’ excellence as a sculptor and teacher it marks a fifty-six year association with the University. The University holds three Bass sculptures in its collection including The Student 1953 and Votive Figure of the Sacred Heart 1961 situated at Sancta Sophia College.  The poignant celebration held in the University’s Great Hall, comes twenty-five years after Bass completed The Arts and The Sciencesfor the niches on the neo-Gothic building, commissioned and unveiled by Lloyd Rees AC CMG in 1984.

A University of Sydney alumna, Dr Margo Hoekstra (Chair of the Tom Bass Sculpture Studio School and wife of Tom Bass), proudly watched on as Bass was admitted to the degree of Doctor of Visual Arts.  As Bass approaches 93 years of age in June, Dr Hoekstra remarked, “With his walker in the ceremonial procession in the Great Hall, the words of John McDonald ran through my mind; he had described Tom as a pioneer with ‘an indomitable spirit of perseverance.’  This spirit, even in this frail state drove him to walk the entire procession and then, at the end, back again to do honour to the tribute placed upon him.  McDonald acknowledged that ‘No artist had done more to shape the face of public art in Australia than Tom Bass.’”

Reflecting on the honour bestowed on him, Bass says, “Being a public sculptor in an art world for which the main focus was exhibiting in galleries was very hard and I often felt judged by my peers in a negative light.  This left me feeling isolated and unacknowledged.  I felt that year after year when I was doing my most important public work, when my peers refused to see the validity of it, that it was like being withheld the nourishment that I needed to go on.  And the extraordinary thing was that I did go on being what I was in spite of the fact that it was ignored by my peers.  Even when I founded the Sculpture School everyone thought I was crazy but it was one of the best things I could have done, even after a 30-year career as a sculptor.  I feel the awarding of the Doctorate sets all this right and acknowledges who I am and what I am.”

Life as a Sculptor and Teacher

Bass emerged as a sculptor in a period of great urban and cultural change in Australia.  After graduating from the National Art School after World War II under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme where he began to formulate his philosophy on public sculpture, he established himself as one of the country’s most successful public sculptors who lobbied for the inclusion of sculpture in civic spaces.

By deliberately choosing to operate without the supportive network of the commercial gallery system, Bass was very much on his own as his contemporaries sought the safety of teaching and gallery representation.  Without a dedicated agent or dealer negotiating his commissions, Bass single-handedly generated his own income from sculpture commissions that resulted in a large body of public work being produced from the 1950s into the 1970s.  Within that period, private, educational and religious commissions dominated his time enabling him to develop a trademark sculptural totemic style: every sculpture revealing a specific message within the design, composition and location of the work.

In a time when bronze casting was not readily available, Bass further developed techniques in copper deposit casting.  Some of Bass’ most totemic works include the monumental Lintel Sculpture 1967-68 (National Library of Australia, Canberra), the serene Ethos 1959-61 (Civic Square, Canberra), The Trial of Socrates1954-56 (University of Melbourne), The Falconer 1953-55 (University of New South Wales, Kensington) and the AMP Emblem 1960-62 (AMP, Sydney and Australia-wide).  However, it is the P&O Wall Fountain 1962-63 in Sydney’s CBD that is viewed by some as Bass’ most famous legacy and in 2006 was reviewed by architect and artist Richard Goodwin as the most important public artwork in the world.

The establishment of the Tom Bass Sculpture Studio School in 1974 further extended Bass’ commitment to the teaching and practice of sculpture and public art.  Encouraging local and international artists to visit the School, Bass has provided valuable insight, knowledge and skills for students of the School.

In 1988 Tom Bass was made a Member of the order of Australia for services to Sculpture.

To this day, Tom Bass has faced an ongoing struggle to be accepted – not by the general public where much of his work can be seen, but by his peers, public art institutions and art historians.  The Tom Bass Retrospective held at the Sydney Opera House in 2006 drew widespread public support most notably from art critics who acknowledged Bass’ contribution.  His journey as a sculptor of totems has been one of daring and conviction.  Inspired by life – fact and fictional – Tom Bass’ symbolic sculptural narratives will continue to be introduced to new generations and contribute to the social fabric of communities.