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Yianni Johns. Yianni Johns.
26 January 2024 Posted by 

Sailor by day, weekend artist: stories from Wollondilly’s Australia Day 2024 Ambassador

RIVERINA-based artist Yianni Johns is on memory lane as Wollondilly’s Australia Day 2024 ambassador bearing a cultural tapestry of lifelong connections looking back on his family history.
Firstly, know a heartwarming story from Mr Johns, a Royal Australian Navy engineer and Qantas aviation engineer, born in Penrith, as he recalls a 1950’s love-match between his Cyprus-born father Chris, and the “cute blonde daughter of a Penrith timber merchant” Bev.
“He worked in a Greek cafe in Penrith where young people hang out in those days, that’s where he met my mum," he said.
“Dad was a bit cheeky and as mum was walking past the café, he ran out with his Box Brownie camera and snapped a picture of her. She wasn’t impressed.
“Weeks later a similar situation arose but this time around, he ran out to the cutie and gave her the photograph. She threw it in the gutter and dad scrambled to save it while mum walked off.
“This [incident with dad] did pique her interest, and later they became my mum and dad. My parents ended up very successful publicans in Queensland.”
Not to be missed family occasions with his grandparents brought the young Johns back to Penrith, having picnics at the Warragamba Dam where his maternal side uncle, Colin Soper had a job building the iconic dam’s walls.
“One of the amazing stories we often hear were the adventures my Uncle Colin had while working on the dam. I find it amazing he helped build it,” Mr Johns said.
As a teenager visiting from the Gold Coast, young Yianni would spend holidays in the Wollondilly being taught how to drive a car “without killing myself”.
“Riding the roads of the shire, I love the topography and the beauty of this shire,” he said.
Mr Johns described his growing up days “far from being conventional”, despite his family from both sides being privileged and well-off.
“My wife Kristen changed her mind thinking I was a privileged kid seeing the jobs I used to do in the pubs [that my family own].
“Lots of sweeping the floors, emptying ash trays, and one job I hated, sorting empty bottles to return in those days.
“It was a privilege to help my parents, even if it meant missing out on hanging out with mates some weekends. Being in a family of half Greek half Aussie was very enriching for me personally.”
Mr Johns said it was “growing up half half” that instilled in him discipline and a dream to achieve as navy engineer serving his country while also pursuing painting.
“The Greek practical man my father was would not let me go to Art School when I finished high school, I was put in the Navy to get a real job. 
“To quote my dad, ‘You’re going to get a real job and paint of the weekends and night’ so that was how my life was.
“I went to the Navy at a very young where I trained as an aircraft engineer.  A creative in this environment?  It was a struggle but as my dad said, ‘do your art at night’ so I did. 
“That helped me cope with those years and further on where I spent most of my grown-up life working as an engineer with Qantas in Sydney and painting in all my spare time.”
He also obtained a Bachelor of Arts Fine Art from Curtin University and a Master of Arts from Swinburne University.
When stationed at HMAS Albatross in Nowra, the nearest recreation for the young sailor on weekend pass was taking his flashy motorbike for a cruise of the Wollondilly, Mr Johns said of his fond memories of the shire.
“In those days as a sailor, we were paid well compared to the average wage earner. We could afford a flash car and fast motorbike, among my fond memories would be going on rides around the Wollondilly Shire a lot.”
The landmark silos in Gundagai, on Sheridan Street, is a showstopper with the mural of Melba XV of Darbalara, a local milking cow who became known as the world’s butter and cheese making fat cow according to 1924 newspaper clippings.
Mr Johns painted the silos to depict Melba as Australia’s bovine legend and added two of her milking cow sisters, Daphnie and Daisy.
“My Greek heritage was and still is fundamental to my success in the arts and aviation,” Mr Johns said.
Wollondilly Mayor Matt Gould said, “The entire community awaits to welcome Mr Johns back as our Wollondilly Ambassador for 2024. Yianni is an accomplished curator with over 80 exhibitions under his belt.
“Yianni has been painting for decades and has held exhibitions in many states of Australia, and internationally in New York, Montreal, Paris and Beijing.
“He was awarded an Australia Day Award in 2010 for his services to Arts and Culture in the Central Coast Region.
“We are honoured to have such a talented artist as our ambassador and look forward to showing him our beautiful Shire.”
Wollondilly’s Australia Day celebrations will be held in the Picton Botanic Gardens from 8am to12pm on Friday, January 26.
Watch Yianni Johns talk about his work as a Qantas aviation engineer in this video link:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0F1dJG-JGPU
Find Wollondilly event details on https://www.wollondilly.nsw.gov.au/.

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