STOKED strokes

By Rob Sutherland

Mornington builder Chris Hanrahan has led an extraordinary life. Although the 58-year-old has enough adventures behind him to fill a book, in recent years he has embarked on a very personal adventure of a different sort: art.

Chris has always had creativity in his blood. His mother ran a business designing and selling clothes while Chris himself worked in the film business building sets for Channel 9. “I had scenic artists who used to do the big murals. I’d always watch them and I loved what they were doing.” His job involved re-creating sculptures and buildings from history, as well as fabricating notable cinematic locations such as “the pool room” from iconic Australian film “The Castle” and the radio-telescope control room in “The Dish”.

But his artistic side emerged in full after a life-changing event. He spent years as his mother’s carer and after she died, he found himself drawing simple sketches in a style similar to those he’d seen her do. “I was sitting there one night scribbling and sketched my first picture. From then on I just kept doing it. That was four years ago. It was really bizarre. She had that artistic streak and I think I’ve taken it over.”

Within weeks he’d taken up painting and his style quickly evolved into his own. There’s a stark contrast between those early sketches and his later acrylic-on-canvas, which he describes as Surf-Abstract. “I’ve never been to art school. I’ve just done my individual style. I’m not trying to match what other people do.”

He can always count on brutal honesty from his sons, aged 23, 21, 13 and 11. “I’ll go ‘Whaddya reckon?’. They’ll go ‘That’s cool’, ‘I don’t get it’, ‘Nup, don’t like it’, ‘Whatever.’ It takes only five seconds. But if I worried about what people think I wouldn’t do it.”

Chris’s on-sea adventures range from the sedate – he regularly paddleboards at Fisherman’s Bay (“I’ve been with the dolphins a few times”) – to the adrenaline-filled. He has surfed in the Australian titles, encountered sharks at close quarters, and been mugged during a surfing expedition in Rio de Janeiro.

He also trained with some mates to take on the Melbourne-to-Hobart yacht race. “We got smashed by the waves. We made it, though.”

A subsequent expedition was less successful. “We busted the boat. Went out the heads and fell off a twenty-foot wave. Bang! Dunny door blew off, tiles blew off.” Only abandoning the trip prevented the boat from capsizing. “We trained all year and lasted four hours.”

Another trip involved sailing 10,000 nautical miles around the Atlantic. “We were crewing for a millionaire. We would come in his helicopter and I’d go from a sailor to a waiter.” “One night we were in El Salvador, and the owner wanted to show off his big boat in front of the restaurant over the bay.” A huge storm appeared out of nowhere and almost pitched the boat into the restaurant. “We were watching people eat their dinner there going …” He mimes a horrified gasp. “We were almost killed. The boat nearly smashed to pieces.”

Chris lived his early life in Melbourne and spent a phase over on Victoria’s west coast, but he now calls Mornington home. “As a builder it’s got everything. I don’t have to go anywhere else.”

He is a member of the Peninsula’s Maladiction Longboarders Surf Club and surfs as frequently as he can. “We can go to certain breaks and there’s only five or ten people, whereas for the same thing in Torquay there’d be forty or fifty.”

“I love Red Hill. Driving through there I said to my sons ‘How’s this? This is God’s own country.’”

Chris is a man of contrasts. There’s a beautiful playfulness to his art, but it is also informed and inspired by the big questions of life. “When you die do you turn into dirt or do you have a spirit?” He points to a canvas. “That’s my meditation.”

One of his works hangs in the St Macartan’s church youth space, a venue named “Quinn’s Place” in memory of young Mornington local Quinn Story, son of one of Chris’s close friends. Chris donated the work in Quinn’s honour.
“It’s a bit of a tricky one to work out. It’s based on having fun at Lorne. There’s a bluestone wall around Lorne, and I’ve put a guy surfing through the middle of it and busting it all up. And there’s a whole grassy area there with guys kicking the footy and having beers and stuff.”

He stretches his own canvas. His skills as a builder mean he can create whatever size he chooses. “Sometimes I’ll just have a canvas sitting there for weeks going ‘Dunno what to do’.” At other times a work pours out of him, a therapeutic pressure valve. He recalls an incident at Flinders when he and some mates fought, in vain, to resuscitate a fellow surfer. “There were about six of us doing CPR. He died doing what he wanted to do.” “I came home and the only thing I could do was to paint. To get it out of my system.”

That some people also buy his art Chris just considers a bonus. “Painting and surfing keep me sane.”

Peninsula Essence – March 2024