Gippsland’s very fortunate to be cultivating an expanding ensemble of diverse spaces that assist, develop and showcase the arts. Opened in 1993, the Cowwarr Art Space is one of our more established creative spaces with facilities for exhibitions, performances, workshops, training and residential studios, and has, impressively, already hosted 110 artists from 16 countries. With a recent partnership forged with Melbourne’s BLINDSIDE contemporary gallery space, Cowwarr Art Space is well set to offer incredible creative opportunities and engagement into the future.
Gippslandia spoke with Claire Anna Watson, a curator, arts writer, artist and the Chair of BLINDSIDEs Artistic Directors to learn more about the history, motivations and goals of the Cowwarr Art Space, as well as gain a better understanding of the development of creatives in a regional context. Thankfully, Nicole Breedon, Cowwarr’s current resident artist (and a creative with regional origins) was also on hand to contribute insight into Cowwarr’s program.
Can you please outline how the Cowwarr Art Space was founded?
Carolyn Crossley purchased the Cowwarr Butter Factory in November 1992. After six months of extensive renovations, she opened it as Cowwarr Art Space the following year. A highly flexible art space, it can accommodate a range of exhibitions, residencies and events. In 1994, the not-for-profit Incorporated Association Cowwarr Arts Network (CAN Inc.) was formed to develop supportive programs for local artists and beyond. I became a member of CAN Inc. in 2006 (I moved to Gippsland in 2006 to take up a curator role at the Gippsland Art Gallery) and for a few years supported Carolyn’s vision of an expansive and well-networked regional arts hub. She is a highly motivated individual and her energy and goodwill for the arts are infectious. She was a prodigious mentor to me and has been to many other artists and curators.
Describe the purpose of Cowwarr Art Space?
The purpose of Cowwarr Art Space is twofold. Firstly, it aims to give the local community access to engage with the arts and artists from a wide range of backgrounds, and secondly, the space creates a supportive environment for artists from all different stages of their career, giving them professional development opportunities in researching, developing, exhibiting and discussing their creative practice. One of the great things about Carolyn’s vision is that she is responsive and flexible to changes and needs in the industry.
How was the relationship between the Cowwarr Art Space and BLINDSIDE gallery fostered?
The idea to reach out to Cowwarr Art Space was born quite a few years ago, but it was when researching Gippsland artists in 2015 that the idea to form a partnership really took shape. The partnership was cemented through a grant BLINDSIDE recently received from Creative Victoria. This enabled the dream of the two organisations being able to work together, a reality. We promoted the residency to artists through our networks and then BLINDSIDE’s Artistic Directors created a shortlist of two artists for Carolyn to select from. Nicole Breedon is the inaugural recipient of the Regional Art Residency. We’re hoping she’ll be the first of many.
Fuck Your Heroes, 2014.
Can you explain what an artist residency is? Why are they sought-after?
An artist residency allows an artist the time and studio space to explore, research, make and reflect. The residency is frequently a crucial component in an artist’s practice, as the majority of artists juggle part-time work to support their creative practice. It is often also a space to share with other artists, to discuss techniques and processes as well as discuss concepts. Artists tend to feel as though they are on the fringe of society, so being amongst like-minded creative thinkers can be empowering and validating.
What benefits does Cowwarr provide a Melbourne or internationally-based artist?
Cowwarr Art Space is the ultimate residency experience. It’s the right place for artists who are wanting to escape urbanity and the daily grind, to find a much slower pace of living, to listen to the wildlife and remember what fresh air tastes and smells like — it’s a reawakening of the senses. Also, the connections and networks Carolyn generously shares with her artists-in-residence are one of the unspoken benefits of this residency experience.
How does the relationship with these two creative spaces have a positive influence on our local Gippsland artists?
The community of Cowwarr, and Gippsland more broadly, have been enriched by the high-quality projects supported by the Art Space. Local Gippsland artists often present their work within the old butter factory, supported in a professional environment to consider the curatorial aspects of presenting their work to an audience, from considerations such as which works to include, to the placement of works and lighting. It’s a rare treat for local artists and the local community to have direct access to artists from across the world. This is how creativity flourishes. It builds a collegiate network of creative people globally. With Nicole’s arrival, there will be a natural curiosity about how and what she makes, and what makes her tick more broadly. This curiosity leads to learning and the exchange of ideas amongst the local community.
Why are the promotion of creativity and practising creatives important to regional communities?
It’s well known that a strong artistic culture leads to a more positive and connected society. All the research, including the Australia Council’s most recent Arts Participation Survey (2016) points to this undeniable fact. Regional communities are no exception. People come together to make and explore art. It connects people from diverse backgrounds and enables people to discuss societal and even personal issues at a level they are comfortable with. A sense of connectedness is more likely to make you feel happy than some fancy car or clothes. Celebrating artists in the community is important—they’ve taken a difficult path often with no financial gain, they deserve acknowledgement for that.
Initiatives such as the BLINDSIDE and Cowwarr Art Space residency partnership help promote the capacity to be creative in a regional context. Whilst it is important to promote creativity within the regional community, it is also important that urban-based artists are aware of the tremendous advantages to being based regionally. So, I think it’s important that city-centric art organisations are actively promoting to regional communities and vice versa. A reciprocal outlook rather than a competitive and binary one regarding urban/regional spheres is much more progressive and healthy.
Are there other events, residencies or galleries in regional areas that are doing an amazing job?
In Australia, there is the Bundanon Trust in NSW, which offers a tranquil setting to reconnect with nature. There’s also Asialink supporting Australian artists to be based in regional (and urban) communities in Asia – these prestigious residencies last anywhere from one to three months. The alumni of RMIT University can access residencies in a regional area in Austria. There are so many more high-quality residency opportunities in Europe than in Australia, so a lot of Australian artists often end up there.
How do you envision Cowwarr Art Space and BLINDSIDE contributing to a more vibrant and creative Gippsland into the future?
My vision is that this partnership continues long into the future. The discussion around connecting regional and urban creative hubs is a long-overdue one. In recent years BLINDSIDE has become increasingly active in this area. We developed a touring exhibition, Synthetica that toured to Gippsland Art Gallery, amongst many other venues. At each regional venue, the touring show presented a local regional-based artist. This was a valuable model, enabling the team at BLINDSIDE to research regional artists and then include these artists in our future program in Melbourne. Finding new ways for BLINDSIDE to reach into regional communities is important so that we’re presenting a diversity of viewpoints. It’s inspiring that Carolyn has enabled Cowwarr to be a thriving arts precinct that is open to new opportunities. This kind of openness is pivotal to future innovation in the region.
Untitled (Knotted Femur), 2010.
Get to know the current Cowwarr Art Space resident artist, Nicole Breedon.
Can you please provide a brief introduction to yourself and your art?
I’m an artist currently living and working in Melbourne. My work often uses traditional techniques or materials to make artworks where the material gives a clue to the meaning of the work. My work is based in sculpture, painting, video and textiles.
Coming from a regional community, how important is the support given to young artists and what does it mean to you, personally?
Growing up in northeastern Victoria meant there wasn't many of opportunities for me, as a teenager and young adult, to break into the arts. There wasn’t a community of young artists and my attempts at gaining experience at the local art spaces, as a volunteer, were fruitless. I had to leave the region to gain access to an arts community and opportunities.
Having access to working artists (possibly as teachers in schools), artist residency programs, and, especially, development programs and financial support is vital to creating communities in which young people want to stay and contribute. This can assist us in furthering the arts culture of regional centres.
How can regional communities foster creative talents better?
Some of the best opportunities for young artists are really practical; learning how to write a grant application or artist statement, creating a budget. Access to development skills can be sorely lacking in regional centres. Then, as their skills develop, providing access to funding opportunities allows artists to develop projects, spaces and exhibitions that have meaning and relevance to young people in their communities.
How is the residency at Cowwarr Art Space beneficial to your artistic career, and what are you hoping to achieve?
One of the fantastic things about regional centres is the access to space. At Cowwarr I have the opportunity to create many works at once, with time and space to work on projects that may be more risky – there’s a good chance of failure! Often during the period of development before an exhibition there isn’t much room for experimentation. It’s really healthy to take time in your career to experiment and try new things. I’m using the wonderful ceramics facilities at Cowwarr to make a series of slip cast ceramics – some use clay that I’ve dug myself.
Chopping Block Paradox, 2009.