DIY Newcastle Now – ARIs, Pop-Ups and Renewals
Artful sandwich board signs are mushrooming in and around Newcastle right now as current Covid restrictions are beginning to ease. Promoting everything in chalky detail from artist-run initiatives, to independent public galleries, art and design exhibition pop ups to pre-loved furniture, fashion and collectables markets. Independent DIY artist-run culture is alive and thriving.
One of the joys of making a collaborative ‘living archives’ about Australian artist-run initiative (ARI) culture and heritage is meeting with artists in their local art spaces and chatting together, reflectively, about the imaginative ways and means they use to create artist collectives, reactivate preloved spaces and enrich local communities with curated artistic projects, public programs, self-publishing and of course: “merch”. Merch is a vital crowdfunding strategy for artistic precariat’s everywhere, when an increasingly expanded approach to enable sustainability is required. In 2021 this includes everything from producing regular art auctions, organising sponsors who make local craft beers and produce freely available, selling individual art works, zines, fridge magnets, tote bags, tee shirts and staging vibrant fundraising events with celebratory champagne and canapes for gold coin gatherings.
Newcastle like many urban and regional centres across Australia also has a fecund if somewhat unmapped social history of artist-run activity. This artist researcher trip to Newcastle and the surrounding Hunter region in May 2021 is about finding out a little bit more. Here in this place a region-specific continuum of grassroots cultural heritage is, at times, up against entrenched and dominant historical narratives about traditional heavy industries and mining which often prevail.
Visual artist, curator, writer and gallerist Ahn Wells works with the mediums of painting, works on paper textiles and clay and admits to having something of an obsession with local DIY experimental making practices and creative networking. Meeting up at Suspension Espresso in Islington was a great opportunity to chat with the artist about her many personal experiences with Novocastrian artist-run culture beginning in her art student days as an alumna of the University of Newcastle in 1995.
The artist speaks fondly about the hidden histories and marginalised narratives of artist collectives and artist groups in the thick of Islington and in the city more broadly, including the ‘NPW’, the Newcastle Printmakers Workshop that recently celebrated its 40th Anniversary in 2019 at Art Systems Wickham. The exhibition, titled 40/40 is currently touring the NSW regional galleries circuit and includes forty artists celebrating forty years of artists working with etching, relief, screen printing, photography and lithography.
Drawing on her own ARI experiences and observations over the years Wells founded Gallery 139 at 139a Beaumont Street in the inner-city suburb of Hamilton in February 2015 with the aim to advocate, support, promote and independent and artist-run galleries in the Newcastle City. Today the gallery owner works enthusiastically (and tirelessly) with many artists and makers who live and work in the area. Progressing her contemporary art gallery from a physical space to an online space in 2019 has freed up the curator, allowing her to work on new curatorial projects and pop-up exhibitions in Newcastle and Sydney.
A current curatorial project gatherED is featured at the University of Newcastle’s Watt Space Gallery and represents seven artists, both mid-career artists and alumni who are feted members of the University community. Their careers span the Hunter region and beyond, and each artist was selected by the curator for their “ particular and profound relationship to our place, our University and our people”.
Established in 1983 as the Newcastle Community Arts Centre (NCAC), Newcastle Art Space, or NAS as it is commonly known is a vital contributor to this fecund and ongoing cultural continuum of local artist-run culture and social enterprise. NAS facilitates affordable art studios, an artist-run gallery, expanded professional development opportunities including three major art prizes and in 2019 augmented their activities by establishing a robust Internship and Mentorship program to further support the professional and intergenerational arts practice of Newcastle artists.
Artist, maker, creative consultant and NAS Business Manager Leah Fawthrop, like Ahn Wells is a generous and vocal change agent in the region, quick to acknowledge both the biodiversity of artists, both emerging and established and in eschewing the need for persistent and ongoing networking and creative dialogue required to support local artists. Fawthrop explains her hands-on approach in her current role at NAS coordinating an exhibition space located at 91 Chinchen Street Islington in a reactivated industrial building. It is a sprawling light filled gallery with 44 linear metres of permanent wall space, an access ramp, and a professional gallery lighting system and now, with the busy lead up to an ambitious fundraiser that are an essential element in sustaining todays artist-run and its programs in an expensive realty rental climate. The artist shows me a cornucopia of delightful ceramic selfies in the gallery beside us which are deftly arranged in preparation for auction at The Big Clay Out art auction and ‘cocktails, canapes and fun’ party planned for this Saturday night between 6-9pm on the 15 May 2021.
Connecting between Artists, businesses and Art opportunities is one of Fawthrop’s passions. She founded Creative Village Newcastle to provide a lively platform for Artists and Makers to connect with each other and with local communities in a creative retail space as an Artists’ collective, adding, “we have formed a powerhouse collective in a retail environment, taking our Artists to a new audience in shopping centres”. In particular the artist cites the important work of the Queensland Artworker’s Alliance [QAA] in Queensland as a key influence in her approach to Newcastle social endeavour. Fawthrop considers that the QAA [1986-2011] was ground breaking in its strategic emphasis on public art and public art coordination in Brisbane, experienced directly while living in Brisbane in the 1990s. Fawthrop suggests that QAA public art strategies served to complement and extend Brisbane’s heritage strategies at the time which over time, had significant local, nation-wide and international impact , “reaching out to new audiences, to people through accessing public art and in public places not only makes me happy, I feel it is important and ongoing work everywhere”.
Artist and gallery director Ash Campbell recently opened Newcastle’s newest artist-run space, Galerie Shangri-Lah at a live music and visual art exhibition event staged in her modest and lovingly reactivated coin shop building located at 281 Hunter Street, Newcastle in April this year. Campbell also ‘moonlights’ at Newcastle Art Space and much like Wells and Fawthrop has maintained an enabling role as a keen advocate of local and independent artist-run cultural practices. She explains that her particular zeal for providing an open-ended venue which is ‘open and freely accessible wall space’ for art students, emerging artists and sustaining a small-scale space with “good lo-fi acoustics” for indie musos and experimentation ” is a primary focus. According to the artist this new art space addresses a gap in the local ecology which lacks informal artist-run spaces a little less ‘pristine’ in orientation, that Campbell feels provides local artists with a friendly ‘wow and welcome’ factor, “ I love Blackstone Gallery down the road at 470 Hunter Street, it is a wonderful example of a change making Newcastle artist-run gallery” she says, “ it is very polished and highly professional in its mood” adding ” Shangri-Lah is a perhaps, a little more informal in its feel, students and emerging creatives love this aspect, and it is also important that the monthly rent; which is more affordable here in a reactivated inner-city locale say, than in a place like Hamilton or Islington, and this makes things more sustainable”.
Campbell explains that starting an artist-run space of her own has been an idea she has been flirting with for a long while, and right now is feeling optimistic about Newcastle’s artist-run future. Her current work includes promoting The Beginning exhibition (on now) planning a ‘big’ group show of local artists for winter, lining-up future performances and live gigs, as well as reaching out to local designers and DIY’ ers. “See this empty space on the wall” , Campbell explains , “just yesterday this wall space of The Beginning was filled with the amazing hand-made designs by my artist friend Bonnie Lee Tipper, from Chinchen_St, a Newcastle fashion house”. Campbell adds that her friend also happened to be organising a two-day pop-up event and exhibition at the Owens Collective opening that night in Islington and explains that supporting her artist colleagues “in whatever way is possible, matters” even if that means leaving a vacated wall in the current group exhibition. Ash Campbell’s informal approach is also interdisciplinary and inclusive, and the well spring of support for her new venture in just two months of operation is a welcome value add to the region’s independent galleries ecology .
Arguably it is this type of persistent, localised and largely voluntary work undertaken by artists that continues the important legacy of the successful Renew Newcastle initiative model founded by artist Marcus Westbury and many others in 2008. The rich heritage appeal of this, as yet largely undemolished harbourside city through maintains a collective grassroots vigil towards opening up artist-led space reactivation strategies which are helping to preserve Newcastle as vibrant and vital arts and culture precinct.
Make Space is an artist run collective founded in 2009, and is located just up the road from Galerie Shangri-Lah in a retail shopfront currently in the refurbished Newcastle Train Station, at corner of Scott St and Watt St . The collective represents makers from Newcastle and surrounding areas, with Make Spacers also organising workshops and special events, hosting visiting artist events and long term cross fertile collaborating. I spoke with artist Jo Dyer, one of the many volunteers, who had recently returned from living and working in Melbourne to living and working in Newcastle once again. Dyer explains the way that the Make Space collective works and its informal approach, and suggests it is only surviving artist collective which emerged during the heady days of the recent Renew Newcastle experience. The artist is hopeful, suggesting that Newcastle’s artistic and collective bottom up rather than top down cultural transformations are unending and recurring while speaking about both Make Space and the SMAC Space Studio initiative in Tighes Hill where she is also involved.
Dyer, in collaboration with artist colleague Clare Burton recently staged an ephemeral exhibition of textured hand-woven wall hangings and paintings titled the WALL GARDEN exhibition which ran at SMAC from 23rd April – 2nd May with the opening night on Friday 23rd. Temporal events like this are now a common and often necessary characteristic of the present day artist-run model. The artist mentions that it was important for them to organise an online auction corresponding with the duration of the event with ten per cent of proceeds to be donated to Global Gardens of Peace, a not for profit organisation committed to creating “sustainable green spaces for vulnerable communities” – read more at jodyer.com.au and via the SMAC website at smacspacestudio.com.au.
Onwards is a collaborative shared artist studios venue located at 6 Torpey Place in Hamilton Newcastle set up by its founders to share ideas and knowledge through process and community engagement. Chris Clifton is a British-Australian printmaker, photographer and self-professed emerging artist whose new body of prints titled Dismantling an Elephant was showing in an Onwards one-night & one-day exhibition when we spoke. Onwards has recently opened up its exhibition program again recently as the Covid climate has become less restrictive. The artist kindly provided a tour and detailed commentary about his collection of new print works which employ deft embroidery techniques, inspired by Amsterdam-based artist Hinke Schreuders. Chris expresses his gratitude for the enthusiasm of the Onwards Studio founders and their one-night one-day gallery model, “short, sweet, it allows for an opening night event and one full day for the exhibition for gallery goers, I like that idea”.
The artist explains that he is also an active member of the Newcastle Printmakers Workshop and we speak in some measure about the extraordinary forty-year history of what is perhaps Australia’s longest running artist-run organisation. “When we curated the 40/40 exhibition in 2019, forty artists acknowledging forty years of activities, workshops, exhibitions and events, we realised that the organisation just pipped the post of the Canberra-based Megalo Print Studio established in 1980″, says the artist and printmaker educator, “artists like Patricia Wilson-Adams, among many others, established Newcastle Printmakers Workshop in 1979 in the climate of 1970s experimental print making and have maintained an essential and ongoing role to keep the organisation a living organisation”.
Created and curated by artist designer Bonnie Lee Tipper, Chinchen_St is a handmade fashion house based in Newcastle. Tipper is busy stitching a new work when I arrive at her pop-up exhibition at the Owens Collective space located at Shop B/101 Maitland Rd, Islington. The label is based on romantic ideals and driven by a passion for sustainable practices. For example, the artist describes her enthusiasm for brilliantly patterned 1970s tablecloths, ‘they are so colourful, so lively, and often people still have these items in their homes and don’t use them, so I collect them, often at op shops, retro shops and markets and transform them into clothes, I like to repurpose these types of fabrics.”
The artist shows me a collection of works that were hanging in Galerie Shangri-Lah the previous day and sings the praises of her entrepreneurial colleague and friend Ash Campbell, “I love what Ash is doing, it’s a much needed place and occasionally we sing in a band together, we had one gig at her new space” says Tipper, “ Ash is incredibly supportive of the type of work I make, garments made from 100% recycled preloved materials, and a long time passion for a wide range of vintage fashion items which are re-loved though my ongoing sewing repairs and alterations services”.
In Maitland WordXimage, a studio gallery located at 445 Maitland Road in a small shop front opened in May. Founding artist poet Richard Tipping shows artwork combining word and image, writing and picture-making, worded images and imaged words, between the worlds of literary and visual art. The artist claims this new enterprise aims to provide ” a program of avant-unguarded shows presenting uncertain art for certain people”.
Behind every funky sandwich board on the streets of Newcastle and around the Hunter region reaching out to invite and welcome new publics, are thought-provoking artist collectives with amazing exhibitions, events, stories, temporalities and programs of independent DIY and collaborative artist-run culture. As a sometime visitor to this area the distinct feeling is that the new narratives emerging here right now carry with them the spirit of Renew Newcastle which emerged in 2008 to reactivate inner-city spaces. This is a local living legacy imprinted re-lovingly on the next wave of artist-run change agents and DIY’ers living, volunteering, working and re-loving together in this beautiful harbourside city, a feeling which spans the vast Hunter topography.
I am truly grateful to all the artists who so kindly shared their stories, were so generous with their time and their memories on this artist researcher sojourn. We will add a few artist interviews arising from this work in the coming few weeks and hopefully, funding permitting an expanded investigation into artist-run culture and heritage in the region in mid 2022. I also thank Lords Coffee for the fun vibes and strong coffee and Scotties Seafood for the nourishing fish meals, what a fab autumnal experience all up. I am immensely grateful to Dungog-based artists, designers, citizen scientists and ARI aficionados Jane Richens and Brian Doherty who have kindly introduced me to the pulse of arts, culture and regeneration in the Hunter Region during the past decade. I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands within these footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. I also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past, present and emerging.
ARI Remix Living Archives & Social Memory Project
Celebrating 10 Years of Collaborative Memory Work (Give or Take Four Decades)
Artist & DIY coordinator
ARI Remix Community Archives Project: Living Archives, Artist-Runs Past Present Future: A Queensland Remix STAGE THREE | Queensland Artist-Run Heritage 1970-NOW (Jan 2020 – Dec 2021)
Brief project description
ARI REMIX COMMUNITY ARCHIVES PROJECT (Project One Stage Three)
A Queensland Remix transmedia project is a new, bold and unprecedented three-stage, collaborative, interactive eresource and Web 2.0 artwork mapping the unmapped diversity of the Queensland Artist-Run scene 1970 – NOW. Presenting untold and hidden stories by artists, co-creatives, peers and cohorts who together built upon, extended and broadened the foundations of the 1970s experimental art ecology. The project is inclusive and expanded in approach. It activates oral histories, artist interviews, personal stories and anecdotes, artist profiles, ARI Profiles richly illustrated with artists’ ephemera; ‘ephemera as evidence’.
ARI Remix is a living archive; LGBTQIA+, cis, non-binary, trans and BIPOC inclusive, and involves active participation and collaborative collecting engagement by artists, art workers, co-creatives, peers and artist groups. It is an enthusiast-led, community-based, non-profit and art ephemera study resource and Web 2.0 [Net] art work #ariremix. It is made entirely possible through immense kindness, generosity, volunteerism and collaborative collecting efforts of over 300 Australian artists and significant arts philanthropy [2011-2021].
PROJECT ONE – Stages One & Two of this project are supported by the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland and have been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body. Stage Three of this project is supported by the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland.