Having returned from burying his father Harry in the UK, prop designer Dave Marriott was faced with a two-week quarantine in a hotel in Brisbane, Australia. Eager to stay busy, manage his isolation and bring light and laughter to his grieving family, he used his long-honed skills to create the Quarantine Cowboy and his faithful steed Russell by recycling the paper bags and poke bowls that were delivered daily to his hotel door, and utilizing his room’s ironing board, desk lamp and coffee pods.
His characters were born (and even a dastardly nemesis, The Cling Film Kid, got in on the action!) and he began amusing himself and his circle of friends, posting photographs and videos on various social media platforms including to the 20,000 members of the Facebook page for Australians in quarantine.
A viral sensation ensued, with local radio stations calling in for interviews, and domestic and international papers picking up the story. But what mattered most was the response he received from his mum, still struggling from the passing of her husband. One night he FaceTimed her from his hotel room to introduce her to his horse and her reaction was priceless… she burst out laughing! And it then became an evening ritual where he’d entertain her with Russell’s antics, and thus, a paper horse that had been born out of tedium and sadness morphed into something that made his mum and a global audience, all party to the crushing pandemic, smile again.
Speaking from his home in Sydney, Dave told us about his adventures with Russell and his feelings on his paper stallion being put out to permanent pasture at the prestigious National Museum of Australia, esteemed home to some of Australia’s greatest cultural treasures.
What’s the story behind The Quarantine Cowboy and Russell? They’ve become a rather famous duo!
I had been to the UK for my Dad’s funeral, and found myself with 14 days to pass, sitting in a hotel room. On arrival we were each given a brown paper bag, with snacks in, and my immediate thought was, “Fantastic, a bag. I’ll keep that!” Little did I know that each meal – breakfast, lunch and dinner, would arrive in the same high quality brown paper bag, so my stash kept building. On day three we were given poke bowls, and after scoffing mine, I looked at the empty bowl and thought it would make the middle of a great hat. I had always loved a dad joke, and the brown paper cowboy is a classic. It goes like this, “Have you heard about the brown paper cowboys? No, what happened? They got caught, rustling.”
The Quarantine Cowboy began his journey. The hat was the first post and it got a few laughs from family and friends, so I made a waistcoat, and then a gunbelt. Each night I would FaceTime with Mum back in the UK, and show her updates and it was heartwarming to see her smile again.
After the chaps, my outfit was complete, so I thought I needed a trusty steed. Initially I had thought to call reception and ask for some cardboard boxes, there was no way skinny paper legs would hold up a horse, but then I noticed the ironing board, and the office lamp made the perfect neck, with an adjustable head! He came together in no time at all, I like working fast and loose.
Are you shocked by the response you’ve had? Did you ever consider this becoming a ‘viral sensation’?
I’ve received hundreds of messages and it feels like everyone is talking about my imaginary friend. But my intention was solely my own amusement, and to entertain my Mum with these exploits. When I left the UK, she was terribly depressed, and was tearful most of the time. But when Russ started getting traction she became distracted and happy, which was my pay off – big time.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and what you do for a day job when not making paper horses in quarantine?
My company is DMOB Design, and we provide art department services to the film and television industry, mainly for commercials. The services range from production design, to art direction, to the making of props, sets and models. I studied three dimensional design, specialising in furniture, and I started working from a workshop in Shoreditch, East London, in the 1980s, before the tsunami of vodka bars and we were booted out. My next move was to pack up and head to Australia, initially for a year, but that morphed into 33 years and counting! For the last 15 years I have been based in Canal Road Film Centre, where my neighbours are wigmakers, shoe makers, costume designers, and below are the Shakespeare company, model makers, special effects techs, and Sydney’s largest prop hire facility. It’s a handy place to be, I can organise everything for a commercial just by strolling around the complex.
How does it feel to have Russell on permanent display in The National Museum of Australia alongside priceless artifacts of major national significance?
It feels really special to know he will be looked after forever, in a special place – and my Mum is ever so proud! I was initially going to leave him in the room, or donate him to the hotel reception.
Do you think Russell’s nemesis The Cling Film Kid might make a comeback, despite his severe ketchup wounds? A rematch of sorts?
The Cling Film Kid, that darn good for nothin’ single use prick is languishing in a brown paper bag prison in the workshop! The museum didn’t want him, it’s all about the horse for them.
What do you think your dad would have made of it all?
Dad would have been made up. He would have chuckled, and been proud. When the BBC called to do a live TV interview, I felt he was somehow part of that. He worked for the Beeb for 32 years. I had brought back some little treasures belonging to him, and his belt held the chaps up, I was using his leatherman, and his homemade sewing kit contained a needle already threaded with a light brown thread that made Russell talk. So he was an integral part of it. And I think being distracted in a creative endeavour is a really positive way to process grief. I’m 100% certain it helped me, my mum, and my sisters come through the awful loss, and the sadness that we were all feeling.
Why did you decide on a horse and not a kangaroo or some other creature?
Have you ever seen a cowboy riding the range on a kangaroo?