South West husband and wife couple head to Cottesloe's 2022 Sculpture by the Sea

Meet the artists: Merle Topsi and Tony Davis will have their work featured at the upcoming, Sculpture by the Sea exhibition in Cottesloe. Pictures: Pip Waller
Meet the artists: Merle Topsi and Tony Davis will have their work featured at the upcoming, Sculpture by the Sea exhibition in Cottesloe. Pictures: Pip Waller

Gelorup-based artists, Merle Topsi and Tony Davis met at teachers college when they were just 18 years old.

It was 1966 and while Merle was a textile major at Western Australian Institute of Technology (now Curtin University), Tony was a painting major.

They quickly bonded over their love of art.

Fifty-two years of marriage later, two daughters, three grandchildren and a continued passion for the environment - 2022 marks Tony's 12th, and Merle's third time exhibiting in Sculpture by the Sea in Cottesloe.

They are the only husband and wife in the history of the exhibition that have exhibited side-by-side as individuals.

We talk about people going through life with their blinkers on - well we took our blinkers off a long time ago when it comes to the environment.

Tony Davis

The artists journey 

After "not enjoying" studying art in both high school and university, Tony completed an Associateship in Art Teaching in 1972.

He then went on to teach art for 30 years, spending time at both Bunbury and Northam Senior High Schools, with Merle by his side.

Working predominantly with jarrah and various other woods, Tony created his first wood sculpture when the couple lived on a 100-acre farm in Waroona.

He said art was the passion that drove him in living.

"When I haven't got a project on the go, I always complain to Merle that I'm bored," Tony laughed.

"Art to me is about the challenge - both physical and mental, and I think that's healthy. Although I should probably wear my mask more often because of the sawdust."

Merle said as a student at Collie Senior High School, becoming an art teacher was her dream.

After attending Claremont Teachers College and then WAIT, she became more interested in creating textiles on fabric, print making and weaving.

"When we lived in Perth I started creating wearable art and selling it to boutiques in Perth," Merle said.

"I got into Australiana and sold products to a shop called Purely Australian.

"I also created an Australian bush potpourri that was actually bought for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney to be used as corporate gifts."

Working with texture: While Tony works predominatenly with timber, Merle incorporates salvaged beach waste into her work.

Working with texture: While Tony works predominatenly with timber, Merle incorporates salvaged beach waste into her work.

Facing the challenges

Shortly after moving to Waroona, Merle began having vertigo attacks resulting in her inability to walk.

She was diagnosed with Meniere's disease, which affects the inner ear and balance.

"It was really debilitating at the time. I would be standing talking to a group of people and without warning something would just whack me and I'd end up on the ground.

"There's no cure for it - and it lasted about 20 years, 10 of which I couldn't drive.

"I found the basket making, gourde growing, our organic garden, collecting rubbish on the beach to be really meditating - and it helped me with my illness, and that's why I keep doing it."

"The disease has burnt out but not totally. I have gone deaf in my left ear because of that.

"For me - using waste material and helping the environment is about healing and health. I just really love it and find it so relaxing."

Creating awareness

When talking about Sculpture by the Sea, Tony said the couple were not in the exhibition for money but because they had "something to say".

He said his piece set to feature in the exhibition, 'Artefact', made from timber and stool, was a "figment" of his imagination.

"I love looking back at ancient cultures that are disappearing, and there's so many of them that have nearly gone," Tony said.

"I had this dream one night about a culture of my imagination - a culture of peoples that were unspoilt by western civilisation - and I created this cult image in my mind that might have been religious or spiritual.

"Artefact is presented in a museum type cabinet, a steel frame, suspended in the air, and it's very much about mankind but it's mysterious. It's a piece that people can engage with on their own level and go on a journey in their own mind."

Merle's piece, 'Sea Anomalies 3', is made with salvaged fishing ropes, twine, floats, nets and plastic, and creates an "eccentric reference" to sea anemones and all sea life threatened by rubbish dumped in oceans.

She said she spent a lot of time at beaches in Stratham, Dalyellup and Bunbury cleaning up rubbish that washed up on the shore.

"I've picked up amazing but horrible things - from toothbrushes to Chinese drink bottles that have fallen off ships out at sea," she said.

"But I really like working with ropes that are really weathered so when I unravel them, they have their bright, original colours still on the inside.

"I know that in the 20, 30 years since plastic fishing ropes were invented, fishermen now know that once they're dropped into the vast expanse of the ocean that they tangle in the ocean, catch fish and then wash up on the beaches.

"But there's still a long way to go."

Tony said both he and Merle had "taken their blinkers off" a long time ago, when it came to not ignoring the state of the planet in regards to pollution and climate change.

"We're finding it's an age thing," he said.

"As you get older you become more and more aware of things we used to do and practices that are changing over time.

"Climate change is such an enormous thing that people need to wake up to because the generation after us are going to have to live with it."

Upcoming exhibitions

In addition to the external exhibition, a number of Merle and Tony's works will be on display in the Cottesloe Golf club rooms, as part of Sculpture by the Sea.

Locally, Bunbury residents will be able to see both Merle and Tony's work in the upcoming South West Art Now exhibition at the Bunbury Regional Art Gallery from March 26 to May 15.

Tony will also be exhibiting a carved, blackbutt sculpture in Sculpture at Bathers, Bathers Beach in Fremantle from February 19 to March 7.