Sydney Harbour Bridge inspires artist to spend 36 years building cocktail cabinet

All his life, artist Michael Gill has been enamoured with the Sydney Harbour Bridge, so much so that nearly 40 years ago he decided to build a replica for himself.

But unlike a regular model, this one is five metres long, full of intricate mosaic art, and can supply the ingredients for a martini.

“The Sydney Harbour Bridge has always been one of my favourite pieces of architecture,” Gill said.

“I think it just made Sydney Harbour for me and I love Sydney Harbour to pieces.”

Michael Gill and partner Christine Payne met at art school in Sydney over 50 years ago.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

He had just swapped life in Sydney for a rural property in the New South Wales Southern Tablelands town of Braidwood and wanted to challenge his abilities.

“The architect really went to town with the art deco decorations on the bridge. I wanted to go 17 steps further in my work,” Gill said.

“You should be able to order a cocktail at a wonderful piece of furniture and have fun waiting for it.”

Nearly 40-year construction

Gill began collecting materials he would use to build his grand design, using timber from fallen trees and coffin offcuts.

Michael Gill handmade every element of the cocktail cabinet in his rented workshop.(Supplied: Michael Gill)

He said each item represented special moments in his life.

“I was ferrying [my partner] Chris — one of the first times I drove her anywhere — across the harbour bridge because we both loved it, and I was booked for speeding,” Gill said.

A year of work turned into 36 as Gill and his partner Christine Payne faced similar issues as the actual bridge builders.

Christine Payne assisted through numerous design and construction challenges.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

“The first thing we did when we started to make the Sydney Harbour cocktail cabinet was the worst thing,” Payne said.

“I almost gave up at that stage because we had to laminate the arch, which is very technical and very tricky, and we didn’t know what we were doing.”

Michael Gill said he lost count of the amount of coloured paper and glass he used.(Supplied: Michael Gill)

The COVID-19 pandemic created favourable working conditions as Gill used every day to fine-tune his project.

“I had a dozen eureka moments where I thought, ‘Ah, this is what this brown piece of furniture needs. It needs colour’, so I added foils, art papers, mother of pearl, power shell and coloured glass,” he said.

Fires 400 metres away

By 2019, the main components of the five-metre island bar were starting to take shape in Gill’s rented workshop outside Braidwood.

The couple attempted to keep out the stench of smoke by wrapping the cabinet.(Supplied: Michael Gill)

But the impending threat of the Black Summer bushfires — which at one point came within 400 metres of the couple’s property — meant the cabinet had to be wrapped in layers of fire retardant cloth.

“It was three years of the worst drought we’d ever seen,” Gill said.

“We’d wrap it in cotton sheets, glad wrap, to keep smoke out if bushfire came, and then tarpaulin.”

Dozens of Braidwood locals, including the couple’s bank manager, pitched in to move the cabinet to a safer location — first, 50 kilometres away to Bungendore, and more recently to neighbour Robert Lang’s shed.

The cabinet is currently housed at Robert Lang’s property outside Braidwood’s town centre.(ABC Illawarra: Brooke Chandler)

Gill’s reputation as an artist is well-known in Braidwood but Mr Lang said the town was still “amazed” when he finally saw the cabinet in person.

“I thought, ‘This belongs in a museum’.

“Of all the things we have on our property, this is the most precious thing, and we’d be making it a priority to protect it.”

‘My life’s finished’

The now 75-year-old Mr Gill said it was a “cathartic experience” packing away the tools and stepping away from a project he had dedicated most of his life to.

“It’s suddenly finished, and you think, ‘Good God, what am I going to do tomorrow. My life’s finished. I have no more to throw myself into’,” he said.

He now wants the cabinet on public display and is in the process of contacting museums, galleries, and other public institutions to encourage them to consider acquiring it.

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