Middleton Art Project

Southern Right Whale Mother and Calf Sculpture

“Buttons & Bobby”


Art in all forms nurtures the soul, awakens the imagination of children and adults, and provides joy and happiness as well as information and history.


An ancient and magnificent fallen red gum tree from near Naracoorte will be transformed into art by celebrated sculptor, Silvio Apponyi. The project will deliver stunning sculptures of a Southern Right Whale mother and her calf, their final resting place near the shores of Middleton.


We will name the whale sculpture after ‘Buttons,’ a Southern Right Whale who has visited our area in 2013, 2017 and 2022, giving birth each time in the waters of Encounter Bay. Buttons’ most recent baby, a male born in the 2022 season, was named ‘Bobby.’ We have wonderful photographs of this mother and calf that Silvio will use to model his sculpture.


Whales are special to the small town of Middleton. We are blessed by southern right whales who make their annual migration of thousands of kilometres to the warmer waters of Encounter Bay. They congregate here to give birth, nurse their young, mate and socialise.


Kondoli the Whale is one of the few Dreamtime Stories recorded, that is set on the Fleurieu Peninsula and ties in beautifully with the whale watching and the red gum sculpture. Renowned First Nations artist Cedric Varcoe, who has strong family connections to Raukkan and Point Pierce, with his language groups and tribes being Ngarrindjeri and Narangga, is excited about the sculpture project. Cedric has written “I am writing to give support that the tree that is being brought to Middleton from the southeast is welcomed with a smoking ceremony to cleanse and welcome it onto Raminjeri Ruwi.”

The proposed resting place for the beautiful sculpture of a Southern Right Whale mother and her calf, ‘Buttons and Bobby.’

The Tree

In 2021 a large red gum tree, many hundreds of years old, fell on a property near Naracoorte, South Australia. Rather than have this tree turned into firewood, conceptualiser and Project Manager Jen Watts dreamed of a more illustrious future for this magnificent red gum that would be enjoyed by millions. The owner of the land agreed to donate the tree to the township of Middleton.


In consultation with Alexandrina Council, it was agreed the perfect artist to sculpt the tree was the world-acclaimed Australian sculptor Silvio Apponyi OAM. Based in the Adelaide Hills, Silvio takes inspiration for his magnificent work from Australian fauna. Silvio has an ongoing and close relationship with Alexandrina Council.


Silvio instantly fell in love with the project and was thrilled to be invited.


Jen and Silvio travelled to Naracoorte so Silvio could evaluate the tree for shape and quality, and the process of planning, budgeting and fundraising could begin.


The tree was on a body of land that every 10 years or so is completely underwater (see photo to the right). Concerned that winter 2022 could be a wet one, arrangements were made to chainsaw extraneous limbs and move the tree to higher ground via two cranes and flat-bed semi-trailer.

The Journey

Silvio identified the limbs he required with spray paint, and local woodsmith and chainsaw operator, David Williams was hired to remove the extraneous limbs from the tree.


The three parts of the tree (the main body of Buttons, her fins and her calf, Bobby) were then removed with two cranes onto a semi-trailer, by South East haulage firm, Gericke Bulk Handling. The tree currently sits in their yard in Naracoorte, and will be transported the 350 kilometres to Middleton in March 2023.


At that point, engineered cement footings will have been built according to council specifications.


A crane will be waiting on location for the semi-trailer to arrive, and the tree will be positioned at Silvio’s direction, ready for carving from 3 April.


First Nations local, Cedric Varcoe will welcome the tree from the South East to Middleton with a traditional smoking ceremony followed by the first ‘ceremonial’ sculpting by Silvio. All are welcome to attend at 9.15am on Tuesday 28 March.


Once Silvio has carved the underside of Buttons and Bobby, the crane will be brought back to the site to turn them over and enable final sculpting.


Silvio’s carving journey will be a thrill to fellow- artists. He uses many mediums to create his stunning sculptures and the method of carving will be of interest to all who work in the medium of sculpture in general and wood in particular.

The Artist

Silvio Apponyi OAM has been sculpting for over 40 years. His style has developed over these years from entirely abstract creations still used in fine details and larger pieces, to an astonishing level of detail and realism.


His main inspiration is Australian fauna, and he hopes to draw attention to these unique and often endangered species.


Silvio creates his sculptures in a variety of media, primarily wood, Australian granites, marbles and bronze. His sculptures range from delicate ‘Netsuke’ style pieces to massive public granite works.


Silvio began carving at an early age and was awarded the Sculpture Prize in his last year at High School. He did a four-year Diploma of Fine Art at the South Australian School of Art, majoring in Sculpture.

Upon completion he was awarded a German exchange scholarship and he spent a year in the Munich Academy of Fine Arts. 


When he returned to Australia, Silvio continued to develop his skills and in 1982 devoted himself full time to his art.


Since then, Silvio has had one-man shows and group exhibitions locally, interstate and overseas. He has won several prizes, accepted commissions, conducted workshops in Australia and Malaysia, and studied wood- block printmaking under a Japanese master. His work is featured in many private collections both here and overseas and in public spaces across Australia.


Silvio was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours for ‘service to the visual arts as a sculptor.’

Silvio is pictured, along with some of his magnificent sculptures.

Markers showing the proposed location of Buttons and Bobby, approximately 10 metres from the Encounter Bikeway

The colour and design of the cement footings will be matched to the colours of the nearby beaches.

The Location

The Encounter Bikeway is a 30 kilometre long, shared trail on the Fleurieu Peninsula, that links the coastal city of Victor Harbor with the river port town of Goolwa, via the coastal towns of Port Elliot and Middleton.


During winter, southern right whales migrate from Antarctic waters to our warmer oceans off the coast of Middleton where we offer perfect conditions for them to give birth, mate and socialise.


The red gum whale sculptures will be positioned on a flat piece of land next to the Encounter Bikeway, in an area overlooking Ratalang Basham Beach and Middleton Beach, adjacent to the Encounter Marine Park.


The cement engineered footings will be coloured in a sand-tone so as to blend in and be one with the environment. This area has been surveyed and soil-tested by engineers and footings built by approved contractors.

The proposed resting place for the beautiful sculpture of the Southern Right whale and her calf, Buttons and Bobby.

Buttons and Bobby to be positioned on this area of council land next to the Encounter Bikeway.

Buttons and Bobby will be a wonderful sight for the many thousands of locals and visitors who use this sensational, 30-kilometre bikeway between Victor Harbor and Goolwa.

The sculpture will be positioned where so many gather each year with cameras and binoculars in the hope they will see these gentle giants within their Nursery area displaying typical Southern Right whale behaviours such as tail and flipper slapping, breaching or just loafing.

The real-life models Buttons and Bobby (along with two other mothers and calf pairs) were close to the shore at Basham Beach when Silvio, Jen, the Engineer and Leah from Alexandrina Council met to discuss the project on 28 July 2022.


The signage location will ensure it is easy to read by those using the Encounter Bikeway, taking into account all users (walkers, runners, wheelchair users, cyclists, skaters).


Although easily visible, the proposed lectern will be discrete and not detract from the beauty of the surrounding fields and ocean. It will be designed to complement the sculpture and enlighten the many thousands who whale-watch in the winter months.

Information about the project will be presented as an artistic feature in itself, discreetly QR coded
for further details through the town’s website, MiddletonSA.com.au.


The carving that supports the interpretive sign is being made from a Pink Gum log donated by Bue & Mel Lo from Waitpinga. The log was shaped by Wayne Dale and crew and transported by Phil Goode. The carving on the base was designed and executed by local artists Chris Reid and Doug Collins. 


Reference photographs and vision of Buttons and Bobby have been supplied by Encounter Bay Right Whale Study (EBRWS) with all drone images and footage taken under research permit. Written information about whales has been researched and approved with the help of local expert Elizabeth Steele-Collins of Encounter Whales / EBRWS.

Ownership & Maintenance

The sculptures of Buttons and Bobby will be classified ‘public art,’ and will be owned by the people of Middleton and the many thousands who visit our shores to whale-watch, enjoy our pristine seas and beaches, use the Encounter Bikeway.

Members of the MTFA will be tasked with oiling the sculptures at least annually to ensure they are protected against scratches and changes in humidity, and increasing the life expectancy of the sculpture.


We are thrilled with the support of Alexandrina Council, the Australian Government, Regional Arts Australia and Country Arts SA who have all contributed funds to bring this beautiful project to fruition.


It is wonderful to have the financial and project support of the The Middleton Town & Foreshore Association, which is also contributing funds towards the sculpture.


A number of South Australian individuals, families and companies have also donated including Bardie Penfold Simpson OAM, Albert Bensimon OAM, Jazzy, Cooper and Ruby Morris, Wendy and Duncan Norris, and a number of donors who have chosen to remain anonymous. All contributions are valued and greatly appreciated.

For further details, contact Jen Watts 0417 812 529 or jen@jeniferwatts.com.au


We acknowledge the Ngarrindjeri people, Traditional Custodians of the land on which we wish to rest the red gum sculpture of a Southern Right Whale and her calf, Buttons and Bobby and pay our respects to their Elders past and present.