By Jeremy Sollars
John Simpson had a vision for a striking steel sculpture depicting Warwick’s horse heritage to catch the eye of the visitor driving into the Rose City on its northern gateway – and while he’s no longer with us others remain determined to see the project through to completion.
It was way back in 2005 that the retired Scots PGC College fine arts and manual arts teacher came up with the idea of a series of steel ‘icons’ representing equine themes to stand on the highway into Warwick to reflect the many ways in which the horse has shaped the community we know today.
John’s original idea was to have them placed progressively along the Cunningham and New England Highways coming into Warwick from the north, but it was former mayor Ron Bellingham who suggested they all form part of one installation in the open area of Queens Park alongside Alice Street and its junction with the highway.
And right up until his death just a couple of weeks ago after a lengthy battle with illness, John Simpson continued to drive the project along, overseeing cutting of the icons at Peel Tribe’s Condamine Fabrications and working the phone from a hospital bed, including a call to the Free Times to give us the latest update.
The lion’s share of around $190,000 in funding for the sculpture has come from private sources – mostly Warwick individuals and businesses – with a small relatively small fraction, $33,000, sourced from a gambling community benefit grant, despite John putting in scores of applications for other public funding over the years to no avail.
Working closely on the project with John over many years has been Warwick-based nutritional biochemist Henry Osiecki, who along with John’s family is committed to seeing his good friend’s legacy come to fruition.
The sculpture will consist of a series of individual steel icons, depicting Cobb and Co’s wagons, heavy horses, polocrosse, campdrafting, thoroughbred racing, rodeo, dressage, pony club, show jumping and the World War One Light Horse.
All but the last have been completed and are standing in the yard at Condamine Fabrications, ready for painting – in jet black – and eventually the assembly of the sculpture in the coming months.
John Simpson drew all the designs by hand and looked over Peel Tribe’s shoulder as they were brought to life with plasma cutting in the workshop, with the one exception being the Light Horse icon which was being finished as this story went to print.
Henry Osiecki told the Free Times John’s vision was for the sculpture to be a community project and not his own, despite John’s countless hours of work to bring it to life.
“The idea of the sculpture is that it represents how central the horse has been to Warwick’s development throughout our history,” Henry explained.
“There are three epochs represented – the ‘beasts of burden’ such as the heavy horses and the Cobb and Co horse, the ‘beasts of war’ in the Light Horse and the ‘beasts of recreation and peace’, like racing, rodeo and campdrafting.
“The Light Horse will be at the top and centre of the sculpture, which overall will represent the concept of Warwick as the horse capital of Australia.
“We’re hoping it will be in place by May or June of this year and we’re working closely with the council who will be doing the concrete groundwork fairly soon.
“It has taken years to raise the money and to obtain of all the approvals we needed from the council and Main Roads and Ergon and the like.
“And the icons have been wind-tested from an engineering perspective.”
Henry said John Simpson had initially been a reluctant fundraiser.
“Asking for favours wasn’t something that came naturally to John – at the start he was scared to ask people for money for the project,” Henry said.
“But he was incredibly driven and focussed and stubborn and he put his mind to it and became a brilliant fundraiser.
“He was still working on the project in his last few weeks – even during his final hospital stay when the doctors were telling him to go home he was still on the phone.”
Peel Tribe said for his part the cutting of the icons had been the most unusual steel fabrication job he’d performed, working from overhead transfers based on photos of John’s hand-drawn designs.
A former rodeo champion himself, Peel said his personal favourite was the bronc icon.
“Our main business is horse trailers, crates and sheds,” he laughed.
“So this was something a bit different and I’ve enjoyed the challenge.
“It’s been hours of fiddling about and when I did the first couple I was really worried about how they would turn out – I was pretty relieved when John said he was happy with them.
“He spent a lot of time here (at Condamine Fabrications) keeping an eye on things, even right up to a couple of weeks before he died.
“I think once the icons are painted and in place people are going to really like what they see.”
John Simpson leaves behind his wife Mavis and their three adult children Tanya, Fiona and Matthew.
Born in Victoria, John taught at The Scots PGC College in Warwick for many years after he and Mavis chose to call Warwick home.
He built the family home just out of town himself, hauling 52 trailer loads of river rock and often with the help at the weekend of Scots borders, who looked up to the popular teacher and housemaster as a figure of leadership – and who Mavis said as predominantly being from off the land relished the chance to do physical work outside of the classroom.
The Simpsons lived in the home for 34 years before moving into west Warwick when John retired.
Fiona Simpson said her dad made her promise to help see the horse sculpture through to completion.
“His idea was to do something to help put Warwick on the map – he wanted people to stop and stay in town and spend money while they’re here,” Fiona said.
“He raised money by writing personal letters to everyone he knew and he got knocked back on many occasions for grants, and he made it his aim to see every single business in Warwick and he spent two solid years doing that.
“Only one grant was successful, all the rest of the money he raised through his own hard work.
“There’s also been a lot of in-kind support from the community for which Dad was very grateful.
“I think he’ll be remembered as having a cheeky charisma and for being stubborn and tenacious.
“He was a Taurus which meant he was a fighter.”