I recently came across an object when working with Proserpine Historical Museum that made me think of a project that I was involved in seventeen years ago for the Queensland Museum. It was entitled “Old salts, alternative life-stylers and beach bums”. The goal of this Queensland wide project was to record people who had a long association with the sea and/or maritime practices, individuals who had chosen a lifestyle that was perceived to be alternative, and individuals who had chosen to drop out of society and live on islands or the coastal fringes of Queensland.
The object in question is the crown from the Great Barrier Reef Coral Festival that was presented to the Coral Queen. This crown was won by Thora Nicolson, formerly of Linderman Island and donated to the Museum. The fascinating full story of the festival and its transition can be found here, here and here through the Museum Facebook page.
Additional research has identified similar festival material culture such as crowns, gowns, sashes, photographs, movies and stories in museum collections throughout Queensland. It would be interesting to look at how these festivals originated, changed and their eventual demise.
My interest however was sparked by the makers of the crown – Leena and Bill Wallace from Coral Art on Dent Island. It is worthwhile to watch this short YouTube clip found here.
Leena and Bill lived on Dent Island and carved out a niche market for themselves selling painted coral arrangements. Bill, formally in the US Navy, was the collector, and Leena the artist. They lived on Dent Island for over 10 years and were some of the early pioneers in tourism in the Whitsunday region. They shipped their painted coral around the world and it was used to promote the Great Barrier Reef through the Queensland Tourist Bureau.
As the area opened up to cruising yachtsman in the 1960s, passing sailors, such as John Gunn, documented them in his 1966 book Barrier Reef by Trimaran
“A married couple live in an idyllic setting on a cleared area of land behind the beach on this northern tip. With tremendous enterprise they have pioneered a business for themselves. The husband dives for coral pieces, and the wife applies delicate shades of colour to them, to make them look like the living corals…One may not be enthralled by this kind of tourist art, but it is popular. And the life that the two have carved out for themselves on their own island is one that many of us would love to have…”
Other painted coral business also sprang up in the Whitsundays such as Mandalay Gardens at Mandalay Point across from Airlie Beach and collections of painted corals can be seen at the Bowen Museum and Historical Society.
Leena and Bill fit into the category of alternate life-stylers and it would have been great to record their story in full. Please contact the Proserpine Historical Museum if you know more about Leena and Bill.