Art always challenges your view of reality. And the new show at The Lock Up creative space, Inside Elands, certainly does that.
Creator Una Rey, an artist and lecturer in the School of Creative Industries at the University of Newcastle, has brought together work by four contemporary artists, reflecting on their own view of life at Elands, a counterculture community founded in the 1970s in the mountains of the Mid North Coast just north of Wingham. The common ground for the four of them: they spent their formative childhood years at Elands.
The show, which opens this weekend, also features paintings by seven "first generation artists", as in, they were part of that original movement of people who came to Elands in the 1970s. Those artists are Angela Beaumont, Jenny Hooper, Suey McEnnally, Russell Page, Rick Reynolds, Jen Short and Julie Slavin.
The four contemporary artists (which Rey has billed as "second generation artists") are Alison Bennett, Juliet Lamont, Rilka Oakley and Leigh Redhead.
"Don't write about me," Reys says over a very long cup of coffee one morning last week at Little Black Pony Espresso. "Write about the place, these artists. The thing I was motivated by, these women were painting there in the '70s, painting outside an art world. They had shows in regional galleries. They sold work. I just like the fact they were making art then that is very different to the art we are making now. But it's still responding to a particular place and a particular time.
"For me, as the curator, telling the story, that first room of painters is my contribution, I suppose from starting with them. If they hadn't gone up there and dragged their kids up there, we wouldn't be there now telling that story."
The seven artists include Rey's parents, Rick Reynolds and Jenny Hooper, who met at art school. They moved to Elands shortly after Una's birth.
The rivers, we really knew that landscape, that country. We would horseride - if we didn't have horses we would just pretend to be horses. We spent years in the river and knew every kind of curve and tree intimately, as kids do. That's very strong.Una Rey
Una's family property was in the Ellensborough Valley, close to Ellensborough Falls, now of the most popular visitor attractions on the Mid North Coast. They built their home from local timber and recycled building products. It was off the grid.
And it was the same for all the newcomers, pushing into territory held by timber cutters and dairy farmers. Beautiful country, but not terribly productive. And a long ways from civilisation, at least compared to everybody else.
It's hard to put into a few words, that shared experience. Childhood friends are often friends for life, because of the intimacy of shared moments, no matter where they grow up.
Rey's lifelong relationship with the four contemporary artists in the show is certainly anchored in that place, Elands. The concept for show came from Rey meeting up with Alison Bennett at an art history conference in Melbourne.
"We reignited our communication," Rey says. "'What are you doing? And started chatting about it."
Bennett is an artist working in expanded photography and an academic at RMIT University School of Art. One of her specialties is photogrammetry, a photographic application that builds models from the shifts in data points read from overlapping photographs.
Her contribution to the show is the documentation of four hand-made buildings from Elands, based on photographs taken of them in their current state. As the project evolved, Bennett was stranded in Melbourne, so she relied on Una Rey and photographer Julie Slavin to photograph the dwellings, which included a two community buildings at Elands made by these modern settlers in the 1970s.
Leigh Redhead is a novelist, who specialises in feminine crime noir. Her contribution to the show is a graphic novel book trailer, based on her new book, Cleave For Me, a fictional account of life and crime in a place like Elands (or what later came to Elands).
Juliet Lamont is an activist and documentary filmmaker. She was still shooting footage for her Elands film for the show last month.
"I talked to Juliet today, who was in Elands doing the final shoot," Rey says in our conversation last week. "I totally trust her, she lives such an edgy creative existence, she truly does. She's had some extraordinary experiences and challenges, but she is a huge creative risk taker ... she said 'I just wanted to go up and hang out there'. That's certainly how we've all felt in reconnecting with the place."
Rilka Oakley, an artist and curator at Blue Mountains City Art Gallery, has been a close friend of Rey's for a lifetime. It was Rilka's father, Gladney Oakley, a charismatic American from Philadelphia who moved to Sydney in the 1960s, who started the move to Elands.
Her contribution to the show includes an installation featuring maps, letters, incredible photos and a re-creating of the bridge on their Elands property. The letters from her father back to family in America canvass moving to Elands, and a perspective on the world, like climate change and politics.
"For lots of us, it feels like a bit of a revelation," Rey says of the thoughts stirred by the Oakley archives. "It's quite personal."
For the four artists and Rey, Elands provided a tie that binds.
"I think just that immersion in such a beautiful environment, physical outdoor landscape ... it used to be a way of life for people to grow up in the bush. The rivers, we really knew that landscape, that country. We would horseride - if we didn't have horses we would just pretend to be horses [Rey laughs]. We spent years in the river and knew every kind of curve and tree intimately, as kids do. That's very strong."
It's easy to make life complicated, how relationships evolve, how we roll with change and disaster - like fires, floods and pandemics. The pandemic has certainly made people think about where home is, and that's part of what Inside Elands does, too.
"I think we just had a great time there," Rey says. "There was so much freedom. That was the thing. I think The Lock Up is the perfect place. We had a place that was all about freedom, and we're just putting into a contained space that is a reminder that not everyone had that kind of freedom all the time at all."
Rey herself still returns to the family property in the Ellensborough property. She created her own art there at various points in the past, and her father still lives on the property.
"It's right under my skin," she says. "I couldn't imagine that not being there. It's totally irreplaceable ...
"One of the camping spots I love is right up on top of the escarpment. It's got a terrific view right across the escarpment to the north .. . You can see the beautiful mist rising out of the valley. "