Masters of their own creativity

Jessica Ledgerwood  and Gillian Bencke are operating from new studios in the old stationmaster’s cottage. Picture: Peter Stoop
Jessica Ledgerwood and Gillian Bencke are operating from new studios in the old stationmaster’s cottage. Picture: Peter Stoop

CREATIVE businesses have taken over the former Newcastle stationmaster’s cottage, the first council-owned site to be placed in Renew Newcastle’s hands.

Built in 1885, the heritage building with Victorian Gothic architecture at 92 Scott Street was initially used by Newcastle Railways traffic controllers and station masters.

Vacant for more than two decades until restored in 1993 by EJE Architecture, it was later leased by leading cardiologists Dr Jonathan Silberberg and Dr Rohan Bhagwandeen for about 15 years. 

Rebranded Stationmaster Studios, it is now home to Gillian Bencke and Alice Kropowski (Bencke & Laukku), Laura Jones (Pigtails & Pirates), Jessica Ledgerwood (Bippy Jean), Tarese Klemens, Emma Taylor (Emma Soup), Holly Marlin (Hollin Textiles) and Petra Hilsen (Felt).

The new studios will be officially opened at 5.30pm on Thursday by lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes as part of Renew’s Winter Wander seasonal walk.

Renew Newcastle general manager Christopher Saunders said the stationmaster’s building deal was a reflection of the organisation’s strong working relationship with Newcastle City Council, with which it signed a three-year, $90,000 funding deal this year. 

Renew Newcastle currently has 56 projects on its books that are using 23 properties, and has since its foundation in 2008 aided 197 creative businesses, 35 of which are now independent commercial operations.   

‘‘We are running a creative incubation program,’’ said Mr Saunders. ‘‘We ... provide mentorship and support for professional development which I think is really crucial for people to realise their full potential and hopefully become lease-paying tenants.’’

The stationmasters building opening was a blessing for Bencke, who had been told at the same time to vacate the Renew-backed workspace she shared with Kropowski above Studio Melt in the Hunter Street Mall. 

‘‘It’s such an amazing building– so iconic and in such a prominent position,’’ says Bencke, looking across to the Convict Lumber Yard where her children play when she works on a weekend. 

Raised in Dudley, Bencke studied communications at the University of Newcastle and took to photography before a brief stint living in Paris ignited her interest in textiles.

Hearing about a Parisian street where many textile businesses traded and threw out material, she stumbled across a ‘‘goldmine of fabric’’.

‘‘I would go ahead of the rubbish trucks, because people put their bins out when they heard the trucks coming, and you’d find big and small bins packed full of fabric,’’ she said.

With an ethos of rescuing and redistributing, Bencke makes bespoke fabric dolls and quirky creatures which she has also used in a sprawling exhibited installation. 

Her most recent body of work, part of the Art Bender festival at The Lock-Up in May, featured shrouds, or death wraps, made from wedding dresses. 

Bencke says the presence of the other Stationmaster Studios artists is a blessing in more ways than one.

‘‘I also make poufs and stuff them with their fabric off-cuts, that’s the cool part being part of the space, we all bounce off each other.’’

For Jessica Ledgerwood, the chance to work on her label Bippy Jean in a shared space has been rewarding. 

A qualified social worker who left the industry about a year ago to focus on sewing, she said the instant networking and support from the Renew community was invaluable. 

‘‘Before this, running my own business was quite lonely and felt isolated,’’ said Ledgerwood, who previously worked out of her parent’s home. 

Raised in Scone, Ledgerwood was no doubt influenced by her fashion designer mum Keri, who with her brother started the label Garry Smith, which regularly featured in Vogue magazine in the 1970s.

A self-taught seamstress, she began making women’s clothes but gravitated towards doing bespoke men’s shirts after noticing a niche in the market. 

‘‘I did a few for my partner, my dad and uncle and they were so excited that I made more,’’ said Ledgerwood, whose Bippy Jean brand is stocked in retail stores including Ramjet on Darby Street and at the Olive Tree Markets. 

Bencke and Ledgerwood say while the space is a luxury they know that inevitably they will be asked to move on when a permanent commercial tenant is found.   

A council spokesperson said the building is currently zoned for commercial office space and that council had applied for Section 57 certification to potentially lease it to a retail business.

‘‘The building has quite strong heritage values and Council’s priority is to look after the building maintenance and to find an appropriate commercial tenant for the best economic return,’’ she said.