While some of the 300 Australia Day Ambassadors were, according to Bingara’s Ambassador, “making lamingtons or riding camels”, on Australia Day, Yianni Johns was delighted and inspired to be at the Roxy Theatre, which he described as gorgeous.
In his address, Yianni, who was accompanied to Bingara by his wife, Kristen, spoke about how his father had migrated to Australia from Greece. “Dad worked as a yardman in a pub, in a Greek café, all the time, building up businesses,” Yianni said.
While he was managing a café in Penrith, the young European had saved up for a Box Brownie camera. A young lady called Bev walked past, and the young man (Yianni’s Dad), leapt out in front of her, and snapped a photo. “She told him where to go. He had the picture developed and next time she walked past, he delivered it to her. She again said get lost, but they ended up getting married.
“As a kid, in the early days of the café, I used to make houses out of wooden fruit boxes out the back. “When you put two Greeks together, you get a café,” Yianni joked, referring to the proliferation of the Greek cafés in Australia early last century.
He was later taken on a tour of the Roxy café and the museum which he and Kristen both found very interesting. “One Australia Day, after 35 years, Dad got Australian citizenship. I told him he was slack, but he replied ‘I couldn’t fill in the bloody form!’
“Dad had pubs in Queensland. I wanted to be an artist, but Dad said ‘Nah, get a real job’, and put me in the Navy, where I learned to become an aerospace engineer. I worked on aircraft carriers, and in my spare time, did pencil and line drawings, as part of my journey as an artist that didn’t go to art class”. Yianni taught himself to paint and got involved in exhibitions. He won second prize which gave him confidence to push on. “Last year was the first year since 2002 that I haven’t been rejected for Archibald,” he quipped.
He told of how he was given space to start an art gallery in an un-used drive-through bottle shop at Wyong. “I did it in classic Greek café style, with partitions in the drive-through. I bought a plane and put the front inside, as though it had crashed through, and put the tail on the outside.” Unfortunately, it was shortly before 9/11 and bin Laden, who, he joked, plagiarised his idea.
“I got filleted by the media,” he said, but he attracted 20 artists who wanted to exhibit. After a year, he was running three public place galleries in Sydney. “I was exporting art from the Central Coast to Paddington, George Street in the city, and to Rose Bay.” Because the artists were from the Central Coast, he received funding from the Gosford and Wyong Councils to fund the gallery/studios.
In 2010, Yianni won a Council Australia Day award for Arts and Culture. “If you are passionate, you do what you do,” Yianni said. “The Navy taught me tenacity, to keep going.”
Yianni said he is going through “my art deco period” with his painting, so found the Roxy Theatre inspirational.
Regarding Australia Day, Yianni said “If you aspire of becoming Australia Day ambassador or for me art, nothing between me and that, never give up. “I’m nothing special, just one of you guys who worked and painted. Our country is made up of people from all over the world. “Something unites us, we value freedom work hard to achieve our dreams.
“We are free to celebrate in all sorts of ways, catch up with family and friends, or enjoy a cultural experience.” Yianni said that he and Kristen had spent time working at Karratha, in Western Australia. After they returned to Sydney, they found the traffic and crowds annoying. “You needed a million bucks for a fibro box,” he said.
“Kristen suggested we divide the happy from the stupid.” So we searched for 18 months, found two houses on one block at Ardlethan, we can have a studio/gallery, and did the tree change last January. It is the best thing we have ever done,” Yianni said.
Now living at Ardlethan, home of the Kelpie, they have a dog which is part kelpie, Yianni works for the ABC, does some engineering work, writes, and of course, paints.