The House At Hill End
‘The sense of home, to me, is very, very precious,’ says artist Luke Sciberras. ‘It’s paramount to the feeling of having a springboard, like having an embracing family that supports you. Whichever direction my work in the studio takes me, I can use the colour and content of this place to feel the energy that it needs.
On first impressions, Luke’s home and studio exude an eclectic and multi-layered ramshackle feel, but it becomes apparent over time that he carefully curates everything into a series of still lifes. A tableau of garden flowers in various stages of decay sits on the dining table, and dozens of artworks and handcrafted objects fill the room like clues to private memories and intimate encounters. ‘Everything around me has to have a reason to be here. I can tell you a story about every object,’ he says.
His home is located in the small town of Hill End, a few hours north-west of Sydney, over the Blue Mountains… Hill End was once a booming gold mining town of 10,000 people, thanks in part to the 1872 discovery of a 3000-ounce gold nugget. Today, it has a population of fewer than 200 people. Luke first visited as an art student in 1997. He went with a group of classmates and lecturers from Sydney Technical College (now known as the National Art School), having seen the 1995 Artists of Hill End exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. He set off on the excursion inland with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism. It was a rite of passage for the young artists. They were following in the footsteps of several generations of Australian artists before them, including John Olsen, Brett Whitely, Jeffrey Smart and Margaret Olley. Luke was captivated…
Luke settled permanently in Hill End in 2000 with his former wife, artist Gria Shead, and their daughter, Stella. He remembers the moment he saw their house for the first time. ‘I stood at the gate, looked up the front path of the house and there was a full rainbow arching right over it! I knew that minute that it was mine.’ The 1873 Georgian cottage was constructed with a combination of saplings and mud, using an ancient composite technique known as wattle and daub. ‘It was a nicely proportioned cottage that had a checkered history, and I felt happy to add a new chapter.’ The building was surrounded by an overgrowth of swaying grasses and had been unoccupied for a long time. The only signs of its former life were a large apricot tree in the front yard and a thriving lemon tree out the back.
Luke and Gria bought the house and later leased a nearby stone church to use as a shared studio. ‘It was very run down, completely derelict, but we thought it would be good because it’s close to the house. ‘The bishop ‘came in with his robes and crosses’ to deconsecrate and thank the building before handing it over its care to the artists. Resident swallows and rabbits moved to new quarters, along with the church pews, bibles, and doilies. Crumbling windows were replaced and walls were replastered. In 2009, Luke bought the building.
The expansive space makes an ideal studio for multiple easels, allowing him to move easily between a number of works in progress. Luke has populated the space with his collections of bones, books, sculpture, skulls and stones. ‘In the studio, there are objects that I have a very strong attachment to, not in any materialistic sense, but they are sentimental. And looking at an object from somewhere I have been is as evocative as looking at a drawing or a photograph. There’s a story in everything and what I do is tell stories.’
The interiors of both his home and studio are crucial to his state of mind. ‘I can’t relax in a sterile environment. It makes me depressed. it makes me sad. It doesn’t have to be lavish or pretentious, but if there is care then you can feel it.’ He may have inherited this aspect of his character from his mother, who has always had a deep interest in art and interiors. He remembers his own childhood bedroom fondly, describing it as ‘actually rather like a museum. I always collected fossils and geological items of interest as well as birds and fragments of dead animals. My room was kind of weird. My mother has very good taste, but my own room was always like the Addams Family wing of the house.
As a teenager, Luke became a fixture in the homes and studios of artists who live in nearby Wedderburn, south of Sydney. ‘There was a group of artists there: John Peart, Elisabeth Cummings, Suzanne Archer and David Fairbairn. They had a wonderful flair and freedom that I really responded to. It’s funny how you sort of slip into a tribe of people who you find an immediate affinity with.’ Elisabeth gave him private drawing lessons, and they used to go up on the roof of her house to draw. A tender portrait of 17-year-old Luke, painted by Elisabeth, now hangs on his dining room wall. Elisabeth also encouraged Luke to attend art school in Sydney, and he has since found his place in the long tradition of Australian landscape painters…
Luke’s residencies and art adventures have taken him around the world and deep into the Australian landscape. But he always loves coming home. He talks about the process of painting the way a chef might desirable a new dish, using myriad sensory and intuitive decisions. ‘When you are making a painting, you are making bodily decisions. It might just be the flip of a knife moving across a couple of colours, and it might be the tone, or the temperature of a colour that you can add to a painting in dozens of different ways. It could be a runny glaze, the consistency of red cordial, or thick and creamy like blobs of sour cream. There are so many ingredients and techniques, rather like cooking.’
Unsurprisingly Luke is also a passionate cook. his kitchen and studio feel like two separate chambers of the same heart. His cooking inspires his painting, and the colours, texture and pleasures of painting inspire what he creates in the kitchen. Plucked chickens, freshly caught squid, the animal bones and hooves are the subjects of the paintings that adorn the kitchen walls along with a handsome collection of old pots, pans, iron spoons, forks and knives.
Despite the isolation of Hill End, Luke Sciberras never wants for company. Whether passing the time with Gria and Stella when they come from Sydney; spending the afternoon at the pub surrounded by a dozen locals, or cooking for visiting artist friends, the offerings from his garden and kitchen will continue to be as abundant as his social life. Similarly, his artwork will keep feeding those who are hungry for the magic of the Australian landscape.
Read the full chapter (of which we’ve only published a summarised excerpt here) in Robyn Lea’s Bohemian Living, out this October, and published by Thames & Hudson.