Southern Highlands gallery a place for kids to dream big, says Ben Quilty

“It is Australian to say in a larrikin way, ‘I don’t understand art’ or that ‘I can’t draw a stick figure’ or ‘my child could draw that’,” Quilty said.

But learning to appreciate art was like learning to read, he said. “Once you have an appreciation, you’ll have that forever.”

An archival image of the old dairy at Retford Park that will open next month as the Southern Highlands first regional gallery, called Ngununggula

An archival image of the old dairy at Retford Park that will open next month as the Southern Highlands first regional gallery, called Ngununggula

Quilty said art as a career felt quite unattainable to him as a child growing up. Other than his parents who took Quilty and his brothers to the city to visit galleries, there was no exposure to the great things that art brings.

It was a shock to find the Southern Highlands was similarly lacking in culture when he moved there to raise his family.

And when he realised that only private schools in the area could afford to take their kids on excursions to galleries in Sydney or Canberra, it was confronting, he said.

“I remember my little girl, her whole class of ducklings getting on a school bus, seatbelts on, and driving down the Hume Highway to go to an art show. It is ludicrous that they can’t see it here,” he said.

To encourage children to start painting and enjoy art, the artist – who has won Australia’s biggest art prizes from the Archibald to the Moran Portrait – invites children to his studio where his 15-year-old son Joey paints. With his daughter Livvy he has made YouTube videos demonstrating how to draw a face and a rabbit.

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Finished about a month ago, the gallery also represents one of two final projects by 77-year-old architect Brian Zulaikha with the firm he established in 1987.

It had been a “fabulously rewarding project”, creating a regional gallery in an area where there had been nothing cultural other than some antique shops, he said.

It had been equally challenging because of its National Trust heritage listing. That meant it had to be restored in a way that it could revert to its old state if necessary.

“It was a dairy, so there was no need [in the past] to make it waterproof. They would hose it down,” he said. “For art, we had to have perfect conditions, so we can borrow – not the Mona Lisa perhaps – but works that require perfect environmental conditions.”

The property was previously owned by the late James Fairfax who left it to the National Trust. Before that, it was owned by retailer Anthony Hordern, and regarded as an agricultural showpiece, known for its stock breeding, particularly horses and cattle.

A championship dairy cow that was once milked in the dairy that has been turned into the Southern  Highland’s first regional gallery.

A championship dairy cow that was once milked in the dairy that has been turned into the Southern Highland’s first regional gallery.Credit:Trove National Library

The stalls where the Hordern’s family 1911 Easter Show prize winning cow, Leda’s Snowdrop, and her splendid heifer, Leda’s Angel were likely once milked, have been retained. They will probably become a small museum, said Mr Zulaikha.

The gallery operates in partnership with Wingecarribee Shire Council, the National Trust,
the state government of NSW, and donors.

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