Medallions and Trophies

The Australian of the Year trophy is designed and made by Newcastle glass artist, Lee Howes, who since 2015 has been honoured to make the trophies. The glass-cast trophies, bring together some of the most recognisable characteristics of Australia - the colours and shapes of our country. The rugged edges of the glass trophies are reminiscent of our coastline and mountain ranges while the jewel-like colours of red-brown, green and blue echo the colours of our land and the ocean which surrounds our island nation. When the aqua and red-brown glass pieces are heated together and the two colours combine, the variegated greens of our forests and mountain regions are created. The inclusion of the floral emblem on each State and Territory trophy is a special touch that adds another layer of Australian symbolism to the designs. Lee’s design for the trophies seeks to capture the essence of Australia by representing its natural beauty. Having travelled extensively around Australia, to the far reaches of Cape York, to the pristine waters of Esperance in Western Australia and through the amazing Red Centre, the colours of all these places left a strong impression on Lee and inspired her design. Watch and find out more about how the trophies are made here.  

Prior to this, Melbourne-based artist Kristin McFarlane designed the trophy for over 10 years, commencing in 2004. Like Howes, McFarlane works with glass, but she is also trained as a  graphic designer; she combines both text and images and sets them in kilned glass to  produce striking works of art. The task of designing a new trophy prompted McFarlane to think more deeply about national identity than she had before: ‘It made me look at  Australian identity and think about what was an Australian? Who is the archetypal Australian?’ She quickly realised that an image of one person, or even a group of people,  would not work, and that her images needed to be generic. She decided to use a map of  Australia: ‘It is one of the oldest continents in the world and it is a very recognisable form for anyone who lives here.’ McFarlane also chose to use the text of the National Anthem, but gave particular prominence to the lesser-known second verse.

The various medallions and trophies that have been presented to the Australians of the Year over fifty years are, in themselves, an interesting insight into changing understandings of what it means to be Australian. Reflecting his lofty ambitions for the new award, Sir Norman Martin announced a ‘world-wide competition’ to design the inaugural trophy in 1960. Sir Norman hoped to attract entries from the world’s finest artists, but the eventual winner was Victor Greenhalgh, the head of the Arts School at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Greenhalgh designed a bronze medallion, which reflected the prevailing mood as to the importance of Australia Day: its most prominent feature was a likeness of Governor Arthur Phillip, who was described on the medal as ‘The Outstanding Australian [of] 1788.’ In 1961 The Age reported that Sir Macfarlane Burnet was anxious when a photographer asked him to display the medallion at the awards ceremony: ‘The nervous scientist, whose hand with a pipette would be as steady as a rock, fumbled the medal and dropped it under the table.’

Greenhalgh’s bronze medallion was presented to winners of the Victorian-based Australian of the Year award for two decades. When the NADC assumed responsibility in 1980, it apparently overlooked the issue of a trophy, so Manning Clark received a framed certificate. For the 1986 award to Dick Smith, the NADC commissioned artist Michael Tracey to produce a more appropriate trophy, which the council described in its journal Australia Day Update: ‘The trophy, symbolising achievement, incorporates a figure holding the Australian flag. The figure is made from steel and the lettering is in pewter.’In the bicentenary year Tracey was asked to cast his trophy in bronze instead of steel. In the early 1990s the NADC commissioned glass sculptor Warren Langley to create a new trophy based on the updated Australia Day logo. NADC Chairman Phillip Adams had been criticised for removing the Australian flag from the logo and replacing it with a hand reaching for a star. After Adams resigned his position in 1996, the NADC asked Langley to produce an alternative trophy, which featured a map of Australia.

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