From ‘Bear Girl’ Emily Sears to Comme des Garcons, our passions make us better


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Nick Hepburn makes minuscule skip bins, tiny trees and replica rivers out of little dribbles of tinted epoxy resin. Chris Browne scours the world for books so evocative and rare they can take your breath away. Paul Tonkin and Francis McKenzie are so captivated by the art of Comme des Garcons designer Rei Kawakubo, they fly to Tokyo twice a year to shop the fresh seasonal racks in her flagship fashion store.

If you’re in the market for meaning – the kind that makes life profound and wholly worth living – you could do worse than follow the leads of the six people you’re about to meet. They live with what Canadian social psychologist and author of The Psychology of Passion, Robert Vallerand, calls “harmonious passion”, the lofty top of a slope that, in rare circumstances, can drop off to dark obsession at the bottom.

“Passion is dynamic,” Vallerand said in a guest lecture at the University of Melbourne earlier this year. “You have the dark side and the light side; obsessive passion gets out of control but harmonious passion leads to positive outcomes: you become an expert on what you’re passionate about, you get to know stuff, you appreciate the nuances between things, you grow and develop as a person …”

You plug at will into a predictable kind of joy that not only energises you for the duration, it spills into the rest of your life, according to associate professor Brock Bastian from the university’s psychology department.

“Beyond anything else you might do simply for pleasure, to feel good, passions have benefits,” he says. “Passions become something deeper, more meaningful. They become part of your identity.”

NICK HEPBURN, film and television set dresser, miniaturist

Nick Hepburn likes little things. Most nights, after he’s kissed his kids and tucked them in, he retreats into fingerling worlds of his own creation. He strews tiny graffitied laneways with minuscule skip bins and clapped-out couches. His undulating papier mache countrysides are replicated around thumb-sized trains on toothpick-sized tracks.

“You do get into a bit of a zone when you’re focusing,” he says. “The alpha waves get going.” It’s an intense mind state many artists and craftsmen liken to bliss. And it’s usually followed by an equally intense sense of accomplishment. Hepburn was a boy when he first felt it. “My dad had a little train set in the 1960s that just clicked together and he’d say, ‘Well, as long as you’re quiet and don’t break it …’ So I’d set it up each Saturday morning.” Bliss indeed.

Three years ago, Hepburn recalled that fascination for miniature worlds (an enduring love of bonsai might also have been a clue) and began to meticulously construct a 60-centimetre by 90-centimetre landscape through which a tiny Z scale (that’s 1:220) train could choof-choof in perfect proportion.

“Getting the scale right, working out the maths, building a couple of bridges, some very cute tiny trees; it took me about four weeks.” He poured a little river from water-tinted resin, and had to wait three daunting days for it to dry without flaws. “It did have some air bubbles, but I turned them into white water rapids.” Hepburn nuts out solutions to render maximum realism in every scale from the teensy Z, up to the comparatively chunky 1:12 “dollhouse” size. “My big obsession at the moment is a kind of babushka doll of skip bins, one inside another inside another …” He’s fitted five into one so far. “But I could squeeze a couple more in, I’m sure.”

NIGEL ELMS, English pub lover

Nigel Elms is as partial as any bloke to a quiet ale with a cluster of mates at his local pub. Unlike most blokes, however, he has a passion for pubs that are perfectly English, from their oak beams and open fires, to their beer taps, pint glasses and dartboards. So he built one. Then he moved house, hollowed out its basement, and built another. And recently, another. Elms’ pubs aren’t twee mock-ups either – they’re solid and real, with oxblood walls, oak bars, panelling, furniture, fire alarm ports, bric a brac and in his current eccentric incarnation, an original 1000-kilogram red phone booth shipped from London – “with phone books,” Elms beams. “I do waste a lot of time in junk shops and wrecking yards.”

His current “pub” in country Victoria is a marvellous revelation in the shell of a huge shed. “I love it when people think they’re just walking into a corrugated iron shed,” he says. “Then it’s a bit like being on the set of Dr Who – you open the door and …”

In a mash-up of passions, Elms also split half this shed-pub into a 1950s-esque garage with original engine-tuner, petrol bowser, 1955 Excelsior 125 motorbike propped on one wall, and a museum-quality red 1955 MGTF sitting regally centre-stage. “I just love cars,” he says in splendid understatement.

Elms tracks his pub passion back to his youth. He’s British-born but spent his boyhood switching between Australia, India and the countryside of Surrey and West Sussex before settling here as a young man with rosy memories of home.

“I used to love pub life when I was younger in England. You didn’t go there to get pissed. You’d go to catch up, meet people. It was a really lovely, pleasant way to spend an evening,” he says, inside his own village pub on the other side of the world.

EMILY SEARS, model, social media influencer, bear lover

Passion can dwell, dormant, in our psyche until a random flash of something sets it free. Emily Sears isn’t certain what that something is, but it happened to her about five years ago. One day, her fondness for bears was fixed at the outer limits of stuffed and teddy; the next, she was utterly besotted, yearning to meet and know more about the living, breathing, growling kind.

“It was just like that, so quick,” she says. “I was suddenly obsessed. I honestly didn’t really think about bears much at all when I was young, but then I saw this video of a guy and his pet bear and …” That was it. “It came over me all of a sudden. I don’t know why; they’re just so cute, so clumsy, they do such human things.”

In a thoroughly modern twist, the Melbourne-born California-based beauty’s passion was also aided and abetted by her four million (yes, four million) Instagram followers. “I started posting pictures of bears. They got to know I like bears, so they’d tag me, and it’s gone from there.” Sears eventually got her up-close-and-personal encounter with a friendly grizzly the size of a small SUV at a photo shoot for a new social media app. It was a zenith of sorts. The “Bear Girl”, now an impassioned advocate for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and the welfare and protection of bears, was thrilled beyond words. “I … it was … just … I …” A perfect summary.

CHRIS BROWNE, endocrinologist, bibliophile

In 1889, Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, kindly signed a copy of his book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for his landlady. In 2017, Chris Browne slips this “ordinary looking little book” out of one of dozens of polished timber cabinets lining the walls and halls of his rambling old house in suburban Melbourne.

“He always used purple ink, you see?” We peer at the faded lavender inscription. “And, he’s signed it ‘From the author’ because he was in a quandary; should he sign Rev. Dodgson? Should he sign Lewis Carroll?” Browne shakes his head. It’s such a trivial snip of history, but I’m moved by how close I also suddenly feel to the legendary reverend, purple-inked pen poised, perplexed for a tick over what to put, his name or nom de plume?

This is the essence of Browne’s bibliophilia. Every book bristles with tales beyond its text: of authors, readers, publishers, dealers. Browne hunts them down as passionately as he does each book. “You like books for a multiplicity of reasons.” In fact, he has carefully, one-by-precious-one, collected 12,000 books in the 45 years since taking his medical science doctorate at Oxford, moving to Melbourne, and assuming a research position at Monash. He developed an early predilection for children’s books and collectable Penguins, and describes himself as a “completist”, meaning one who hunts English-language first editions of every book by a particular author. “I think I have 20 different editions of Pride and Prejudice.”

Most treasured of 12,000, however, is a second-edition copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. It conjures a time and place, as all worthy books do. “I can still hear my grandmother’s voice, reading it to me when I was three.”

PAUL TONKIN AND FRANCIS MCKENZIE, fashion art collectors

I rarely see Paul Tonkin and Francis McKenzie arrive at or leave any of Melbourne’s many fashion-skewed cultural events. But they’re invariably there. They slip quietly in, watch and absorb, slip quietly out. Occasionally this modest, soft-spoken couple in their striking clothes, can be chased for a review of their latest favourite emerging designer (often from RMIT) or new work by their idol, Japanese fashion legend Rei Kawakubo. (They make two trips to her Tokyo boutique for her new collections every year.)

But mostly, they prefer to observe as the peacocks and poseurs of Melbourne’s fashion community swirl around them. Ironically, three decades of this quiet fringe existence have turned Tonkin and McKenzie into a sort of local institution, recognised as wearers and passionate collectors of artful, intellectual, trend-transcendent fashion, and especially welcome wherever fresh talent is blossoming. Track back, however, and their lives might have been decidedly less joyful.

When the fashionably inclined sweethearts graduated from university, they were pressured into careers as high-school science teachers. A couple of years in and both were deeply disenchanted. Blessed relief and an epiphany arrived with the furiously creative, trailblazing catwalk shows by Melbourne’s newly formed Fashion Design Council in the early 1980s.

“Compared to where we worked, which was fairly sedate, these were outrageous,” McKenzie says. “Models ran around the room like banshees!” They eagerly recall early encounters with work by some of the most significant designers of the age: Martin Grant, Fiona Scanlan, Jenny Bannister, Tamsin Dale, Christopher Graf. “We were just blown away,” Tonkin says, laughing. And they still are, in their quiet way.

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