The five giant bronze statues of footy greats that flank the Avenue of Legends on the approach to the MCG are the work of sculptor Lis Johnson, a Yarraville local of more than two decades who loves the area’s village feel. She speaks with Benjamin Millar


What is your connection with Yarraville?


I moved back to Melbourne in 1994 after living in New South Wales for 11 years, and started sculpting for an art production company in Spotswood [Mothers Art]. I’d never heard of Yarraville, except I knew that a few brave musician friends had moved here in the late ’80s. There was one cafe, empty shops, a boarded-up theatre, and… affordable houses. I somehow convinced the bank to lend me enough money to buy one. When the artists and musicians move into an area the rest follows: cafes, bars, cool shops, trees, culture …


What do you love most about the area?


It’s conveniently close to the city, but still has a friendly “village” feel. Although it’s become gentrified, it’s not too pretentious.


Do you have a favourite local place or places?


I love the Sun Theatre, of course. My two favourite shops are Village Idiom and Post Industrial Design (in West Footscray). There are so many great places to eat out, or get takeaway (Bopha Devi is a fave).


Lis Johnson is opening her studio this weekend for Open Studios. Photo by Damjan Janevski.

Lis Johnson is opening her studio this weekend for Open Studios. Photo by Damjan Janevski.


How did your love of sculpting develop?


I had quite a “free-range” upbringing in the ’60s and ’70s, close to remnant bushland in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs – building cubbies or billy-carts, digging traps for tigers, re-enacting pirate movies. Not a lot of TV, more imaginative and “hands-on” activities.

I progressed from Play-Doh, Lego and constructing things out of cardboard to making life-sized plaster figures. As a teenager, I believed the world would be destroyed within my lifetime (by nuclear war), so when deciding about a career I opted for something that I enjoyed, which was the arts. I gravitated towards sculpture.

It was a good choice for me because I can stay physically active with plenty of intellectual stimulation. Each project involves researching different subjects and solving technical problems. Ideas are easy; it’s the follow through, bringing them into reality – that’s the challenge for every artist or inventor.


Who have been your biggest personal and artistic inspirations and why?


Scuptor Bert Flugelman was my main artistic mentor: Wise, funny, he taught me not to make excuses – if you don’t know how to do something, find out and don’t give up. I’m also lucky to have Louis Laumen as a friend. I think he is one of the best figurative sculptors in the world right now.

There are so many artists I admire: Antony Gormley, William Kentridge, Yayoi Kusama, Louise Bourgeois, Frida Kahlo, David Bowie, Bjork, Missy Higgins, Jane Campion, Charlie Chaplin …


What’s something people might be surprised to learn about you?


I can move my ears without touching them.


Lis Johnson will open her West Footscray studio at Fundere Studios this weekend as part of Open Studios. Visit to learn more about Lis and her work.