Jul 29 2014

History – Arts in the Yass Valley

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Historically speaking, the Yass Valley region has been either the birthplace of, or host to, some of the nation’s significant arts practitioners over the last century, beginning with the poets A. B. (Banjo) Paterson and John O’Brien.  Paterson was raised at ‘Illalong’ near Binalong and was also co-owner of a property at Wee Jasper in later life.  John O’Brien was the ‘nom de plume’ for Father Patrick Hartigan who was born at ‘Boree Log Cottage’ in Yass (This cottage was also the childhood home of contemporary artist and musician Katherine Cameron).

Margaret-Coen_Book_thumbArtist Margaret Coen, whose parents owned the Coen’s General Store in Yass in the early 20th century was part of the lively literary and artistic world of 1930’s Sydney, and became a force to be reckoned with in an art world largely dominated by men.  Coen could count amongst her close friends, Norman Lindsay and she went on to marry the poet Douglas Stewart.

Historically, the Yass Valley region has also attracted artists, musicians and poets and still does to this day.  Iconic names such as Elioth Gruner, Sydney Long, Will Ashton and Fred Williams drew inspiration from the region and returned regularly.  Wee Jasper was like a second home for traditional landscape artist Leonard Long (OAM) and the Globe Inn in Yass was indeed home to contemporary artist John Olsen (AO, OBE) during World War II when he was a young lad.

TriggsA significant benefactor of the arts in the early 20th century was millionaire businessman and grazier, A. B. Triggs, whose personal collection, housed in  his mansion ‘Linton’ in Yass, could be considered the forerunner of its day to that of David Walsh’s collection at MONA in Hobart.  The spectrum of art ranged from contemporary through to works by Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael.  His was an eclectic collection that also included Roman coins, illuminated manuscripts and ‘curios’ that once belonged to historical identities ranging from Charles Dickens to Marie Antoinette.

Alfred Shearsby was an amateur geologist, skilled calligrapher and professional photographer, living in Yass from the 1920’s through to the 1950’s. He left the region an amazing legacy of photographic work.

The Yass Repertory Society is one of the state’s oldest continuously running amateur theatre groups, having been formed in 1946. Its first president was Ralph Crago, a producer and actor of considerable talent and a great help to the society.  In 1984 the Binalong Players was formed by professional actor Rob Steele and continues intermittently to this day.

Following closely on the heels of ‘Yass Rep’ was the Yass Music Club, begun in 1950. The late Dr R.A.G. Holmes AM was music director from its inception. The Yass Music Club is a member based group which brings classical and traditional music concerts to the region and provides an annual youth music award.

The 1960’s saw the creation of the new St Augustine’s Catholic Church in Yass, (an architectural milestone in its own right) and integral with this structure was a collection of sculpture by acclaimed sculptor Tom Bass.  Bass’s art graces some of Australia’s most famous landmarks and the St Augustine sculptures are indexed by local government as amongst some of the region’s most significant public art.

Since the 1960’s the Yass Lawn Tennis Clubhouse has been used as an arts studio, its earliest mentor being Archilbald Portrait Prize winner Janet Dawson. Dawson moved to the region with her husband, actor and writer Michael Boddy.  Subsequent teachers included Robert Liddicoat, Roger Moore and Pamela Lowe.  The Tennis Club Art Group’s current mentor is John McClung who also taught art at the TAFE College when it was established in Yass in the early 1980’s

1972 saw the inception of the region’s first visual art festival, The Berinba Art Prize, created for the purpose of raising money for a new public school, Berinba.  Instrumental in this were local identities such as David Bishop,  Richard Rayner, John McClung, Rosemary Hodgkinson and Sandy & Georgina Reid.  This festival would continue for at least two decades and became renowned throughout the state.

From the 1980’s the Yass High School had established a school band and at one period a local initiative was undertaken to bring teachers to Yass from the Canberra School of Music to give personal tuition to students one day a week.  Many of the Canberra School of Music ‘heads of department’ and tutors would eventually settle in the Yass Valley such as David Pereira, Alice Giles, Arnan Weisel, Tor Fromyhr and Leanne Bear.

Renowned composer Bruce Smeaton, known nationally and internationally for his film scores found sanctuary for himself in the bucolic surrounds of Binalong.

The first establishment operating in some sense as gallery was Mark Shane’s in Yass run by Brenda
Longley and featured work by local artists such as her son Mark Longley and nationally renowned artists such as Leonard Long.

Glass artist Peter Minson established his personal gallery at Binalong in the 1980’s and in 1989 Rosemary Hodgkinson established ‘The Sheep’s Back Gallery’ in Yass which went on to support much local talent including Pamela Lowe, Anne Hind, Margaret Carr and Nicolette Benjamin Black.

Cooma-Cottage_Kim-NelsonFrom 1989 – 1994 the National Trust property ‘Cooma Cottage’ outside Yass, hosted a range of arts based activities ranging from poetry to classical and contemporary music and established a ‘Heritage’ arts prize. Under the direction of manager/curator Kim Nelson the property featured exhibitions ranging from historic Wedgwood through to works by Arthur Boyd.  There was even a retrospective of the art of Margaret Coen, the first recorded instance of a Yass Valley venue honouring a local born artist.

During the early 1990’s the old Gunning Courthouse became the personal gallery of artist Dianne Reddon and also featured work by other regional artists.  Many years later, actor/artist Max Cullen & his artist wife Margarita Georgiadis would take on the old Gunning picture theatre and turn it into the wonderful Picture House Gallery.

In 1993 international glass artist Peter Crisp and his family opened the Crisp Galleries near Bookham which has gone on to become one of the region’s premier cultural tourism attractions not only featuring Crisp’s work but hosting artist in residence programs, exhibitions and classical/traditional music concerts.

In the same year the Wee Jasper Tavern created a gallery space and started featuring local art.  This venue ran successfully throughout the 1990’s

The Anthony Rose Gallery in the heart of Yass was opened in 1994 by framer John Sunnuck and his wife Rose (don’t know who Anthony was!) This was to be the region’s first framer and the gallery also developed a program of solo shows in support of local art

The wine industry was really starting to take off around this period and in 1994 the Murrumbateman Winery was the first vineyard to sport a purpose built art gallery.  Many of the region’s wineries now support local art and music including Tallagandra Hill and Shaw Vineyards.  Additionally, through the 1990’s, cafés and restaurants such as Maggie’s Café in Yass and Cork Street Café in Gundaroo began actively promoting local art.

Contemporary music is a lot more difficult to keep track of, as contemporary bands tend to come and go quite quickly and the region, until recently, hasn’t been able to support a live contemporary music scene.  Mr-Freeze_3In the early 1990’s, the rock group ‘Mr Freeze’ was started by guitarists Tim Furner and David Ash, and established quite a reputation as a professional and lively group performing their own songs and played at local venues such as the Murrumbateman Tavern and the Royal Hotel in Yass as well as further afield. (David Ash became a finalist in the MTV guitar awards).
Local musician David Buckmaster was instrumental in organizing many ‘gigs’ locally in the 1980/90’s and local businessman, turned music promoter, Tony Southwell started drawing renowned musicians to the region in the 1990’s.  His son James Southwell was raised in this environment and has gone on to be a singer/guitarist of note nationally, having been groomed by rock guitar legends such as Phil Manning and Kevin Borich.

On the Folk Music scene the Murrumbateman Acoustic Music Club started over ten years ago and in 2012 Yass became host to the ‘Turning Wave Festival‘ of Irish and Australian Music, an event which utilizes various venues throughout the town of Yass and is inclusive of local talent.

The Gundaroo Music Festival began in 2013 and is the vision of a local musician Scott Windsor who sadly passed away from Motor Neurone Disease in 2014.  This festival is also inclusive of local talent and its aim is to raise awareness and funding for research into this disease.

The new millennium has seen a virtual blooming of young contemporary music talent in the region such as Chad Croker, Veanka, Michaela Swadling, Siobhan McGrath and groups such as ‘Vague‘ and ‘Day 4‘ are a result of the changing nature of the region and availability of venues.

Well, poetry was where this article started and we’re proud to say that the very region in which Banjo Paterson was raised, Binalong, won the chance to host the National Bush Poetry Award in 2014.  Binalong ‘performance poet’ Robyn Sykes was also national champion in that year.  The Binalong Arts Group was formed and they continue to host bi-monthly poetry afternoons in Binalong, as well as other arts related activities.

Concurrently, the Yass Valley region has produced award winning writers of note such as Lizz Murphy, Michael O’Sullivan and Robyn Cadwallader, known nationally and internationally.

In 1996 artist Kim Nelson returned to the Yass Valley, having left a career as a manager/curator of museums & galleries to embark on a career as a full time artist.  As a benefit to the Yass Valley he decided to produce a quarterly flyer that could help keep the community in touch with cultural activities in the region. It was something he felt was lacking and might potentially unify the region’s arts practitioners and help those planning events to work together rather than at odds.

By the turn of the century YASSarts had embraced the new technology ie: the internet, and the YASSarts website expanded its potential by also becoming an inventory of arts practitioners in the region.

By 2008 local sculptor Al Phemister was interested in developing the YASSarts concept into a project that was proactive in creating and supporting regional events.  Out of this developed an arts trail that involved practitioners and events throughout the Yass Valley region and in 2013 the creation of various events such as ‘Sculpture in the Paddock’, ‘The Secret Canvas’ art auction, the poetry event ‘Sisters in Rhyme’ and the youth concert ‘A Night in the Lane’.

In 2014 YASSarts became an incorporated body.

Since 2010 YASSarts has:

  • Established a permanent display at the Yass Valley Visitor’s Centre including a slideshow screen highlighting arts practitioners and events of the region and monthly feature artists.
  • Develop social media (Facebook, Twitter etc.)
  • Developed the YASSarts website to include not only pages on various practitioners but also create NEWS and CALENDAR sections.
  • Created promotional videos for Youtube and Yass Valley tourism display.
  • Been integral in instigating the CLASSIC YASS festival.
  • Lobbied local government and successfully made them aware of the cultural tourism potential of the Yass Valley region.
  • Become a data base and advice resource for local government and other bodies and assisted related bodies such as Southern Tablelands Arts and the Childer’s Group (ACT)
  • Lobbied sponsors to support the arts in the Yass ValleyCapital
  • Advertised via various media.
  • Run school programs and workshops
  • Assisted Yass Valley Council establish an effective Public Arts Committee
  • Obtained constant media attention for the arts & culture of the Yass Valley via press and magazines, radio and television both locally and nationally.

In 2013 YASSarts creator Kim Nelson was named Yass Valley Shire ‘Citizen of the Year’ in the Yass Valley Australia Day honours.  In November of that year the YASSarts program of events drew national exposure via the launch by Robyn Archer AO, (Artistic Director of the Canberra Centenary).
Ms Archer praised YASSarts’ undertakings in her opening address and was amazed at the scope & professionalism of this volunteer undertaking.

Also in 2013 ABC Television ‘‘7.30 ACT’ produced a story on the inaugural ‘Sculpture in the Paddock‘ event which then received rotation screening nationally on ABC2 for several months.

In 2014 YASSarts undertook a temporary lease of the historic ‘Oddfellows’ Hall’ in the heart of Yass as a prototype for a potential future arts centre for the region.  Eight exhibitions were staged and the success of this venture surprised everybody and encouraged Yass Valley Council to seriously investigate the future possibility of developing an official regional arts centre for the Yass Valley.

And so the story continues . . .