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An Artist's Bohemian Abode + Church Studio In Rural NSW

Creative People

Melbourne photographer Robyn Lea will release her new book, Bohemian Living, next month. It features 20 beautifully unique Australian and international homes, with accompanying essays offering rich insights into the lives of modern-day bohemians, including Joshua Yeldham, Gavin Brown and Peter Curnow, and TDF favourite Greg Irvine!

Today we chat with the incredibly talented author/photographer about this new hardcover, and share a chapter excerpt, on the 1873-built Georgian cottage and converted-church studio of artist Luke Sciberras in rural New South Wales.

24th September, 2018

Melbourne photographer Robyn Lea‘s new book, Bohemian Living, is out next month. Photo – Robyn Lea.

From the pages of Bohemian Living, the 1873 build Georgian cottage of artist Luke Sciberras. Photo – Robyn Lea.

The scenery around Luke’s home in Hill End, NSW. Photo – Robyn Lea.

The nearby former-church which is now Lukes studio. Photo – Robyn Lea.

Studio details. Photo – Robyn Lea.

Studio details. Photo – Robyn Lea.

Robyn Lea
Monday 24th September 2018

‘Everything around me has to have a reason to be here. I can tell you a story about every object.’ – Luke Sciberras.

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.

Luke’s kitchen, as featured in Bohemian Living, out October. Photo – Robyn Lea.

‘To balance a world that seems to spin more quickly than ever, home has become a refuge, and for many in this book, a place of utter joy and unfettered self-expression’ – Robyn Lea

Q&A WITH THE AUTHOR

When Robyn Lea set out on a new project in 2017, she thought she was going to create a book about artistic and unconventional homes around the world. However, as she was welcomed into the homes of complete strangers and began to unravel their storied interiors, deeper themes emerged. She found the spaces were more than simply attractive to the people who created them, they were vital to their creative expression and the result of a journey from unusual childhoods to often unorthodox adult worlds.

Published by the Wall Street Journal, Elle London and Vogue Italia amongst others, Robyn is an incredible photographer, and as you will also find from the excerpt below, a brilliant storyteller. She took a few moments to tell us more, ahead of the release of Bohemian Living: Creative Homes Around The World, her first book for an Australian publisher.

How did the idea for THIS book come about?

Kirsten Abbott from Thames & Hudson approached me with the idea for this book in late 2016 and I began to work on it in 2017. The idea of Bohemian Living resonated with me instantly, because when I was growing up in regional Victoria, I spent many pivotal moments with an artist couple, Sara and John Benn, who lived in the most liberated and creative way imaginable. In some ways, this project felt like an extension of their influence, which still holds great meaning for me today.

Many of the creative thinkers and practitioners in this book epitomise a bohemian outlook. Whether consciously or not, they are not imprisoned by others’ expectations, which liberates them to follow often unconventional paths.

In your introduction, you mention it was initially going to be a book ‘about artistic and unconventional homes around the world’ however deeper themes began to emerge…

One of the common themes that emerged during the course of creating this book, was that for many of the artists, building a beautiful private world was essential to their emotional well being. There was nothing superficial about their decorating choices.

One artist mentioned that without beauty and creativity, she would quickly become depressed. Another said she would die if she was made to live in a white space with lots of plastic. Art in this context is like a lifeline, like fuel in the tank, and for some, it even provides a compelling reason to get up every morning.

You also identify the relationship between self and space is a pivotal theme; what did you discover?

The relationship between self and space in this book is a central and important theme. It is as though the space/home itself is a living, breathing, evolving life-form which talks, without words, to its inhabitants in powerful ways. Each home is like a friend, or a mirror, which provides a constant nurturing dialogue – a positive loop, which feeds the creator and helps them define themselves. Many of these artists have created environments that help them think, work, feel and even sleep better.

Your intriguing subjects are linked by a shared ‘rejection of mass-produced objects and furniture in favour of idiosyncratic décor and unique pieces’. We find ourselves both purposefully and even inadvertently championing this too. Why do you think the preference is so prevalent, and do you think it is becoming more so in recent years?

It is no secret that as human beings we share a need and a yearning for connection to others and to nature, and a desire to understand ourselves. The more that machines are able to mass-produce objects and furniture, the more we seem want to make things for ourselves. For example, holding a hand-made mug with its tiny imperfections speaks of history, of human hands, and of the creative process. It’s imbued with the meaning that sometimes feels lacking in today’s world.
In a similar way, the more people accumulate online friends on a global stage, the greater the excitement at being invited to the homes of real friends. It is in these private domains that we can enjoy one of today’s true and rare luxuries – being together with people we care about, in an environment that is steeped in personality and meaning.

To balance a world that seems to spin more quickly than ever, home has become a refuge, and for many in this book, a place of utter joy and unfettered self-expression. Each object or piece of furniture in these homes is like a handwritten line in a private diary. It helps form an intimate story, and like a set of hieroglyphic symbols, it appeals to those who speak the same language. Like the slow-cooking movement, this book is about the slow home – places that have evolved over many years. They can’t be thrown together without time, love and feeling, and the results are inimitable.

Next, Robyn Lea will be working on new books and an exhibition! Follow her adventures here.

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