A phoenix rises from the flames

Kerrie O’Connor meets the former student who has carved a place in history for himself at Corrimal High School.

Image: From the flames: Former Corrimal High School student Josef Papac spent almost a year carving a delicate artwork for the new industrial arts block after fire destroyed the previous one.

An intricately carved phoenix rises high into the sky as you enter Corrimal High School’s new industrial arts block – the perfect symbol of regeneration after fire gutted the previous building in 2018.

Principal Paul Roger also knew the perfect artist to express that ordeal and recovery.

Fifty-one years after completing his HSC at the school, Josef Papac returned to accept the brief for a faculty that had given him so much inspiration as a student.

“Industrial arts was my favourite subject at school,” he said.

Wielding only hand tools, the project took him almost a year to complete - earlier this month, Mr Papac celebrated the opening of the building with students and the community – and a grin to rival the size of the giant artwork.

“I had the biggest smile on my face you can imagine,” Mr Papac, a retired metallurgist and industrial arts teacher, said.

“This carving is a monster, the biggest I have produced. To see it hanging on such a substantial wall was wonderful.”

Image: By hand: Mr Papac shunned electronic tools in favour of hand chisels, a mallet and sandpaper as he brought his phoenix to life.

The carving stands 2.65 metres high, is one metre wide and was carved from white beech, a hardwood from NSW’s Comboyne forests, west of Port Macquarie.

Mr Papac considers himself “a sculptor in timber” and the project was lovingly executed with traditional chisels, a mallet and sandpaper.

He discussed the brief with Mr Roger and head industrial arts teacher Craig Mulder.

“They wanted something special in the entrance, a lovely piece of work representing a phoenix rising from the ashes,” Mr Papac said.

The Greek mythological bird has been interpreted in many ways, but Mr Papac gradually whittled down his design ideas.

“It would have flames coming from down below, a bird escaping, a few flames on the bird, the school’s name, emblem and the name of the faculty,” he said. The details emerged over 1740 careful hours in the workshop.

Mr Roger said the result was “mind blowing”.

"To know that it was hand carved with so much passion for our school is a really nice ongoing legacy for both Joe and the school,” he said.

“It also symbolises the journey we have been on and serves as a reminder that as a school, we can overcome any adversity we are faced with.”

Mr Papac’s diverse career shows he knows something of rebirth himself.

After graduating from high school in 1969, he trained as a metallurgist and worked as a TAFE technical officer, before retraining at the age of 49 as an industrial arts teacher.

“I graduated at the age of 52 with a Bachelor of Education in Design and Technology,” he said.

He was one of a cohort of 18 retraining as teachers, a group which included Mr Mulder.

Mr Papac taught at Holsworthy High School, ushering the faculty from set squares and compasses into the age of computer-aided design.

Yet his 29-year love affair with the painstaking art of traditional European wood carving endures – as does the task of keeping his more than 180 chisels sharp.

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