Newcastle artists bring new life to old shed

CLOSE GROUP: Rear, Sally Bourke, Lucas Grogan and (tipping over) Nicole Chaffey; middle, Ileigh Hellier and Ellie Hannon, and; front, Nick Barlow.
CLOSE GROUP: Rear, Sally Bourke, Lucas Grogan and (tipping over) Nicole Chaffey; middle, Ileigh Hellier and Ellie Hannon, and; front, Nick Barlow.

“OH no!,” cries out Sally Bourke, the artist’s voice spilling over the walls and splashing around her neighbours’ studios. “I left a $60 brush on the table!”

Two of those neighbours, fellow painters Nick Barlow and Nicolle Chaffey, hear her but don’t respond. There’s no need, Chaffey explains.

“When it gets to a certain level, you sing out, ‘Are you ok?’,” she says, smiling.

In this large shed in Georgetown, six artists listen out for each other, look after each other, and they critique and applaud each other’s work.

The shed itself also plays a role. It offers the artists private space and common ground. While the group hasn’t given itself a name, the shed has helped give the artists an identity - and a creative home.

“Making art is our spiritual practice,” says Bourke. “And this space is our church.”

STUDIO: Nicole Chaffey holding clay bowls, with her drawing done in ink made from stringybark. Pictures: Simone De Peak

STUDIO: Nicole Chaffey holding clay bowls, with her drawing done in ink made from stringybark. Pictures: Simone De Peak

FROM the outside, it looks like just another old light industrial building. The steel-clad shed has a roller door. The building has a wing, which looks like a converted garage, with a passionfruit vine clambering over it. On one wall out the front of the shed is a clue to what lies inside; it blooms with a colourful mural, painted by one of the occupants, Ellie Hannon.

Entry to the building is through a small corrugated-iron door. That door is like a rabbit hole to another time, both past and future. For once you’re inside, you can see slivers of what this place once was, with old timber and steel beams and the ghost of a tradesman’s sign, along with the artists’ marks, as their works take on colour and shape for upcoming exhibitions.

Sally Bourke believes the building is at least 100 years old and, during its long life, has been a storage shed, a builder’s workshop, and a metalworking factory.

“We call it the ‘shitty shed’,” says painter and textile artist, Lucas Grogan, “because it’s draughty, and it leaks a little bit.”

Signs of the past inside the shed. Picture: Simone De Peak

Signs of the past inside the shed. Picture: Simone De Peak

Bourke and Chaffey were the first artist tenants, moving in to work in 2012, after they had to leave their studios in a Wickham woolstore. What they found when they walked in here was a space that hadn’t been used for years and in need of work.

“This was an empty shell,” recalls Chaffey. She explains that as well as being artists, the occupants have had to be interior designers, builders and plumbers - “I fixed a leaky toilet once”.

After cleaning up the shed, the artists built internal walls to create their own work spaces, often using materials that had been left out for kerbside collections.

“I think the majority of it is held together with white paint,” Bourke chuckles.

Facing the front door is a sign that reads ‘Non Conforming Products’, a relic of the shed’s former days and not a statement about the present occupants. Near the entrance is a feature wall holding two painted sculptures of chimpanzees with brushes. 

Ellie Hannon working near the kitchen, with a painted sculpture by Michael Bell in the background. Picture: Simone De Peak

Ellie Hannon working near the kitchen, with a painted sculpture by Michael Bell in the background. Picture: Simone De Peak

The sculptures were created by another Newcastle artist, Michael Bell. The chimps are survivors of a studio in the city that Bell and Bourke had to vacate when the building was renovated.

So in one way, the painted figures are a reminder of how fraught the working life of an artist can be. Bourke sees them differently - “I put them there to say, ‘I think painting’s fun’ - as it should be.”

The space has a small kitchen and a toilet, which “studio Mum” and cleanliness warden Sally Bourke has adorned with a portrait of the Queen. From Her Majesty’s mouth floats a speech bubble, declaring, “I say! Put down the seat”.  

Off the kitchen is a common area, where the artists gather to show their work, pack for exhibitions, or to simply meet and talk art or resolve any differences. It is, as Nicole Chaffey says, “a neutral zone”.

The artists gather in the common area. Picture: Simone De Peak

The artists gather in the common area. Picture: Simone De Peak

Over the years, artist residents have come and gone. Each has brought something into the shed, Chaffey says. 

The group looks for more than just those who can help pay the rent, which is $2000 a month for the property and split according to the size of each artist’s work area. 

The tenants also seek the right “energy dynamic” for the shed.

“You’ve got to be careful of the types of energies and personalities in the space,” explains Chaffey. “We don’t want any clashes.

“We’ve got a really great group of people.”

While they are under one roof, each studio - and the art created in them - is markedly different.

Artist Sally Bourke in her studio in the shed. Picture: Simone De Peak

Artist Sally Bourke in her studio in the shed. Picture: Simone De Peak

SALLY Bourke’s studio is in the back right corner of the shed.

Light streams through the windows, but what she likes is the air they also let in. When you’re working with oil paints, she says, you need good ventilation.

On one wall, Bourke has attached a row of portraits she is working on, their doleful, compelling faces staring out at a bench covered in painting materials, and shelves holding old suitcases, which the artist uses for storage.

“I don’t have to walk more than two metres to what I need,” says Bourke, who has been a painter for about 20 years.

Sally Bourke's studio. Picture: Simone De Peak

Sally Bourke's studio. Picture: Simone De Peak

There are a few concessions to comfort, a couch that belonged to her grandmother and some family photos (she has three children), but in here is primarily about work.

Bourke is in her studio just about every day. She says that’s what the entire shed is about.

“This is a space with people who are fair dinkum and work every day,” she says. “You’ll never find this space empty.”

On the other side of an internal wall is Nicole Chaffey’s studio.

Looking through an internal window to Nicole Chaffey at work in her studio. Picture: Simone De Peak

Looking through an internal window to Nicole Chaffey at work in her studio. Picture: Simone De Peak

“This is my centring place,” she says. “I come here to work. At home I get distracted or I feel guilty then work. So I make a pilgrimage here almost every day [from her New Lambton home].”

A Birripai woman who has an honours degree in fine arts and a masters in Aboriginal studies from the University of Newcastle, Chaffey has been recently creating dozens of coolamon, or traditional bowls, from clay. 

On one wall is a long ink picture on paper. Chaffey made the ink from stringybark extracts. The works she’s created here are for display at Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery, as part of the Hunter Red exhibition.

In her studio, Chaffey has a plush leather lounge, which belongs to Bourke. 

“I just hope she forgets about it; I love it!,” Chaffey grins, adding that she often sits on the lounge and “I have conversations with my paintings”.

In a corner of Chaffey’s studio is Nick Barlow’s small and crowded space.

Nick Barlow in his studio. Picture: Simone De Peak

Nick Barlow in his studio. Picture: Simone De Peak

When he was graduating from university about 18 months ago, Barlow found out about this shed from Chaffey and negotiated to rent a part of her studio.

While his area may be a squeeze, filled with the contemplative and beautifully eerie figure and still life paintings he’s working on for for a July exhibition in the shed, Barlow says he finds this a “fostering” place, where he’s been able to learn from the more experienced artists.

“It’s a place where ideas can start and get shared around,” Barlow says.

“We also use this space for exhibitions, and that’s a way of bringing in the community to see what we’re doing, and that helps get ourselves out there as well. 

“I think it helps boost Newcastle, and it shows there’s an arts community and shows off that communal aspect.”

Nick Barlow and Ellie Hannon in the kitchen area. Picture: Simone De Peak

Nick Barlow and Ellie Hannon in the kitchen area. Picture: Simone De Peak

The only drawback to Barlow is the shed can be cold in winter. He is wearing two layers of flannelette shirts and a beanie: “I’m freezing!”

He and Chaffey may work within a few metres of each other, but that doesn’t mean there are many disturbances.

For one thing, Barlow is quietly spoken and does a lot of his talking with his paint brushes. The others have been watching Barlow develop as an artist, which brings them joy.

“He’s the favourite,” says Chaffey. “Don’t tell Lucas!”

Lucas Grogan at the back of the shed, with one of his distinctive blue and white paintings on display in his studio. Picture: Simone De Peak

Lucas Grogan at the back of the shed, with one of his distinctive blue and white paintings on display in his studio. Picture: Simone De Peak

IN the back left corner of the building, through a pair of 1960s-style orange-coloured bubble-glass doors, is the deep blue of Lucas Grogan’s creative world.

Grogan is a gregarious character with a wicked sense of humour, which can find its way into the works he creates. His meticulous blue and white paintings often carry acerbic messages.

As a result, his works can poke the viewer in the eye then soothe it with their patterned beauty.

Grogan moved into the shed about two and a half years ago. He has colonised two studios, converting them into one larger space to accommodate his textile art as well as his paintings.

In his space, shelves are crammed with art books, a cupboard is filled with materials for his textile works, and there are lots of blue streaks on the walls and concrete floor.

Lucas Grogan's studio. Picture: Simone De Peak

Lucas Grogan's studio. Picture: Simone De Peak

Those streaks are reminders of works that have gone off into the world.  

Yet to Grogan, the creative process is not only about what happens in his own space. For him, this is not a solo journey in the shed.

“It’s important to have a social studio,” he says. “If I just had a studio at home, I’d go insane.

“Nicole and I have different practices, but I might see her doing something and think, ‘That looks great’. It’s not like you copy off each other, you riff off each other.”

In the wing off the front of the shed is painter and ceramicist Ellie Hannon.

Ellie Hannon working on ceramics in her studio. Picture: Simone De Peak

Ellie Hannon working on ceramics in her studio. Picture: Simone De Peak

She has been part of the shed community for about 18 months, after a few years travelling and working in South East Asia, and then living in Coffs Harbour before heading down the coast.

“It’s a community that feeds off each other to grow; there’s no competitiveness but this sharing of knowledge,” Hannon says.

Creativity is not all that grows in Hannon’s studio. The vine outside has pushed its way in through the ceiling and hangs down in front of the paintings she’s working on. Even the sheet Hannon has stretched under the skylight to soften the light has become “a hammock for the plant”.

“It’s a very charactered space, because you’ve got to deal with a lot of dirt and dust, which is good because you can get messy if you want to. You don’t feel precious.”

Ileigh Hellier in her studio. Picture: Simone De Peak

Ileigh Hellier in her studio. Picture: Simone De Peak

Sharing a section of Hannon’s studio is the newest tenant, Ileigh Hellier. A recent fine arts graduate of Newcastle University, Hellier has worked here since late last year. 

“I’m still finding my feet, so I feel like the new kid on the block,” she says, while beginning a still life painting.

“It’s nice to have like-minded people. Everyone is like a mentor. We all kind of mentor each other.

“Things like this can be hard to come across.”

Ellie Hannon and Lucas Grogan chatting outside the shed. Picture: Simone De Peak

Ellie Hannon and Lucas Grogan chatting outside the shed. Picture: Simone De Peak

THE roller door is up, the morning sun is brushing a little warmth over the shed, and Sally Bourke and Nicole Chaffey are sitting out the front having a cuppa and a chat.

They yarn about painting, exhibitions, and the importance of what they’ve created here in this old building. And what they’re talking about is not just art.

“As Lucas says, ‘We’re ducks flying together’,” asserts Bourke.

“Artistic ducks?,” I ask.  

“Or sitting ducks,” Bourke replies. “Depending on how you look at it.”

Nicole Chaffey in her studio. Picture: Simone De Peak

Nicole Chaffey in her studio. Picture: Simone De Peak

This place is about more than being a collective, Chaffey reckons.  It is about “camaraderie”.

“We balance one another out,” she says.

Sally Bourke nods and murmurs, “It’s like a family really.”

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