A cricket ball lies abandoned at the edge of a sports oval in Wollongong’s seaside suburbs. An ordinary cricket ball, its scratched leather split apart from being hit too hard or thrown too far, too many times. A cricket ball which “speaks volumes”, if you ask Wollongong-based sculptor Anita Johnson.

It’s difficult to determine if the ball always held meaning, or if its depth only came to light once Johnson lovingly sewed possum fur into its hard interior, pressed the leather into a mould of her breast, and gifted it a new title, ‘Tenderness’.

This is Johnson’s magic; offering up a world of meaning from objects that the rest of us ignore.

Johnson spoke to me outside Woollahra Gallery, where Tenderness won the 2023 Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize. Her art is a “conversation” she said between artist, audience, and objects which “changes our perception of our everyday lives”.

As a child, Johnson said she had immense empathy for lost items. She spoke of them as though they were living, calling them “broken or damaged”.

So why the cricket ball?

“It seemed wounded, I wanted to care for it,” she said. Her art is an exercise in empathy and love.

Growing up in the ’70s, her father (“a practical man, a farmer, a mathematician”) would take Johnson and her siblings to the tip every weekend.

“We didn’t have very much money… we would just rummage and take home whatever we wanted and play with that.”

It wasn’t until Johnson was enrolling in tertiary education that she thought: “Oh, this is something I can do as a profession.”

She doesn’t need to be huge and noisy in order to make an impact. This is about something executed with love.

Despite not understanding pursuing art, Johnson’s family supported her enrolling at Sydney College of The Arts. So, Johnson’s childhood toys became her career.

But not every broken object is special. Johnson salvages things which have a physical memory associated with them; “objects that we use intimately with the body”. This is what differentiates a street sign and a cricket ball; a clock and a broken violin. Johnson takes these objects home to be held once again.

This “creates a direct contact between the observer and the artwork,” she said, “because they also have a physical experience of the object that I’m using.”

For Johnson, the cricket ball’s life cycle from toy, to abandoned relic, and now as a winning sculpture all certainly carry meaning.

“I think you see all these things at once simultaneously,” she said. “And I guess that creates some of the tension that’s there.”

That tension, she added, speaks directly to human relationships and their balance between tenderness and violence.

Alex Seton, 2009 winner of the Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize and one of the three judges of this year’s prize, said that this “gorgeous” tension convinced him Tenderness was the deserving winner. The cricket ball, he explained, was a “crackingly hard object” that Johnson had “broken up to have an interior that is soft and tender”.

It’s fitting Johnson won the Small Sculpture Prize, as Seton noted Johnson’s work “is something she doesn’t need to be huge and noisy in order to make an impact. This is about something executed with love”.

Johnson rejects Australia’s obsession with all things BIG – “The Big Banana, The Big Prawn, The Big Potato” – and chooses instead to value intimacy, and objects we have an inherent urge to cradle and nurture.

Pippa Mott, the director of the Woollahra Gallery said: “You can have this one-on-one experience with a small sculpture that can be just as powerful as walking into a room that’s full of projections, sounds, scents and textures.”

The sculpture may be small, but it’s effective as a gentle protest against waste. The Australian census revealed we generate 76 million tonnes of waste per year.

Seton said “to reclaim that which is discarded and to give it new life in this day and age is a profoundly generous and giving act”.

When I asked Johnson where her unique empathy for discarded objects comes from, she said: “I don’t know …It’s a part of me. It’s a part of how I view the world.”

By sharing her art, Johnson allows audiences a glimpse of this loving world view too.

“Tenderness” will be displayed in the Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize Exhibit at Woollahra Gallery until November 5, 2023.

Main image by Lilas-Mae Njoo.