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A giant bull ant emerges from...

The artist poses tentatively with his steel insect.

A sculpture which, says its creator, could be Broken

Hill's answer to the Dog on the Tucker Box is on

display - the work of an artist who, with his valuable collection of paintings, is himself a tourist attraction

The burglar alarm had rung early

that morning in the rambling art gallery on the fringe of Broken Hill. A short, plumpish figure brandish- ing a revolver, rushed to the scene to

search for the intruder.

It was the bush's celebrity artist, Pro Hart, protecting an unofficially estimated $2 million worth of paintings ("The biggest private collection this side of Sydney") in his own gallery.

He didn't find an intruder, but you can understand him being jumpy. "Some of the paintings used in my bushranger bal- lad book were missing when we did a stocktaking recently - they were in a storeroom, but the gallery is very safe,"

he said.

"Safe" seems a relative word when you wander around through the clutter of everyday articles, masterpieces and odds and ends that cram the gallery and the adjoining home.

And "safe" was a relative word when

we asked Pro to lie on top of his giant, welded steel sculpture of a bull ant. "It's only spotted together with the welding torch," he said. "It might collapse."

So we put a garbage can underneath it and he lay along the steel backbone of

the steel insect with one foot supported by the can so we could take our picture in his yard before the sculpture was moved to its permanent site.

The steel ant is now installed outside the Stephens Creek pub, an old stage coach stop 16km from Broken Hill, on the dusty road to Tibooburra, and crowds pour from tourist buses to see it.

The ant, about eight metres long and standing about 12 metres in the air on top of a wooden mine poppet head, was a sudden inspiration. "You know the Dog on the Tucker Box at Gundagai? Well this will be the Ant on the Poppet Head at Broken Hill," said Pro.

Pro is a fan of bull ants, and his own tenacity and bustle remind you of one. "People don't notice ants," he said. "They are smart. You can't walk past some of the big bull ants - they turn around and follow you.

"They are not like insects, they're al- most human - when they bite, you re- member it. I was going to build a bigger ant but couldn't get any backing so I had to give up the idea.

"This one is made from scraps - to use ordinary cut steel would spoil the


ABOVE: Part of the three-tiered gallery which houses a valuable collection of old and modern masters. LEFT: Pro adds a touch to his latest painting. BELOW:

The artist at the keyboard of his $40,000 pipe organ. Pictures: David Wallace.



artistic effect. I let things happen, let them develop: you can't plan art."

The bull ant is just one aspect of Pro's frantic life pace. He makes and bakes ceramics ("I don't use a potter's wheel - I do better with my hands"); he likes pho- tography ("I take a quick snap and use it to paint from later"): weightlifting (his lavish tin shed gym is used by locals); motor-bike riding (he has sponsored a lo- cal event): music (he has two magnificent organs which he plays); pistol shooting; and religion.

A bus crowd had just disgorged into his gallery as he sat down to play. Hart humour is enthusiastic if not successful. "Getting organized," he grinned.

Some of the crowd couldn't make up their minds whether he was the artist or the caretaker. Others knew straight

Pro works out with the weights.

away and hovered within earshot with pleased smiles.

In his paint-splattered shorts or slacks, T-shirt and thongs, he is a con- trast to the somewhat intimidating gal- lery of old and modern masters ranging from Raphael and Gainsborough, to Picasso, Dali. Corot, Sir William Dobell and Arthur Boyd. Only about half his col- lection has room to hang.

Some are surprised when they first sight Pro. "A lot of people expect some old coot about 90 (he's 50) with a beard down to his ankles," he said.

His studio is ultimate clutter. It seems as if he has never thrown anything away. Alongside valuable paintings and sculp- ture lies cameras, tripods, engine spare parts, paint tubes, brushes, a TV, a radio,

a rifle and clocks.

As we talk he moves from dabbing col- our on to a ceramic to glazing a racetrack picture. This painting has men running inside horse suits, instead of the wheels he frequently uses in place of the legs on

his horses. He is defensive about the horses on wheels - people keep pester- ing him to know what they mean. "They are only a prop," he muttered. "This painting with men inside horses shows the folly of horse-racing.

"I don't like races, I don't bet - I just like the antics. At a St Paddy's Day meet- ing I saw these blokes with a bottle of champagne and chicken in the grand- stand. The champagne had been shaken up and when the cork came out they sprayed people below."

Pro claims that he does not know how

many paintings he owns: "Hundreds - I've never counted them.

"When I used to buy pictures they were not that expensive. I got Percevais for a few hundred dollars. Now they are up around $50.000 each.

"Driving locos underground in Broken Hill mines on contract enabled me to buy them."

Does it worry Pro that a child might put a foot through a painting lying seem- ingly carelessly around? "No, they're pretty safe, but I have had vandals."

Pointing to a Constable on the gallery wall. Pro said: "Actually, that could be a forgery - a bloke at the National Gal- lery said he didn't think it was genuine." Forgeries of his own work are cropping up - "about 18 now."

His wife Raylee (she collects antique baby rattles) came in with a message: "The sheriff s on the phone and he wants to borrow our metal detector." Pro frowned and said: "Some blokes bor- rowed two of mine and haven't come back, but tell him there's one here."

So we discovered another facet of the

unpredictable Pro - a prospector! CU