Orchard Gallery marks first ten years

In early February I met with the Rev. Andrew Collis and Catherine Skipper in the manse studio to reflect on 10 years of the Orchard Gallery (South Sydney Uniting Church). We recalled that the South Sydney Uniting Arts Committee (SSUAC) was born out of conversations at Redfern’s Woolpack Hotel in 2009, the first committee comprising Andrew Collis, Adrian Spry, Jo Tracy, Eve Gibson and me.

Hayley Megan French in the manse studio, Redfern. Photo: Andrew Collis

From the beginning, the SSUAC imagined a community art class where materials would be supplied and all welcomed. The class would be held on the second and fourth Saturdays from 12 to four o’clock, with lunch provided (participants making a gold coin donation).

While the South Sydney Uniting Church has continued to host two art classes every month over 10 years, the vision has grown to include an artist-run space (Orchard Gallery), curatorial projects, an artist-in-residence program, occasional life drawing classes and a yearly Christmas lunch.

The Saturday art classes are led by rostered teachers, who each bring different ideas, materials and skills to the group, ranging from water colour and acrylics to papier mâché and clay work. The classes are in no way rigid as they are based more around the sharing of ideas, the sharing of space and the sharing of lunch. What has emerged from this collegiality is a community of artists.

The use of the church space as a gallery was an almost immediate development in 2009 when an exhibition was staged by Gordon and Elaine Syron. The Keeping Place showcased the Syrons’ collection of works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, as well as paintings by Gordon himself. Lights and tracking were generously donated and the space was filled to the brim with art.

That show was followed by an exhibition of Easter-themed paintings by Miriam Cabello, and in late 2009 I showed a series of paintings and photographs after completing undergraduate studies at Sydney College of the Arts. It was my first solo show.

Since then, many art class participants and teachers have exhibited work. The classes have generated the real life of the gallery, with the first retrospective of class productions in 2010.

The Orchard Gallery has continued to grow, marking various milestones along the way. A series of life drawing classes started in 2011 was significant, acknowledging desires to expand both the skills and the output of the group. In 2015 the Orchard Gallery hosted Community Art in partnership with Counterpoint Community Services. The exhibition, opened by Damien Minton, marked the first time the gallery exhibited as part of a wider network.

In 2011 Catherine Skipper joined the group, revitalising the arts committee and its projects. Catherine has championed a strong community-focused curatorial program, inspiring a local neighbourhood-themed approach to many of the classes. She reflects on the importance of participation by gold coin donation, which ensures a capacity to welcome all interested in sharing the art experience. The classes mostly take part around a long table, which encourages the sharing of stories and ideas.

The artist-in-residency program also began in 2011, welcoming renowned artist Johnny Bell, whose residency culminated in the solo exhibition Shall We Dance? in 2012. Subsequent resident artists Jovana Terzic, Jemima Hall and Alex Grilanc have made creative contributions. Local artists Gaylene Smith, Louise Virgona, Adrian Spry, Tamara Maximova and Rosalind Flatman have held solo exhibitions.

In May 2018 the opportunity to be the fifth artist-in-residence was timely, offering a space for me to complete work for an exhibition at Galerie pompom in Chippendale. Since then, it has provided a space for me to reflect on my practice and locate myself in the communities in which I live and work.

Facilitating Saturday art classes has challenged me to be more experimental and playful, and I am so grateful for the generosity of all artists involved in the arts program over the past 10 years.

This month, the Orchard Gallery presents Collapollage, an exhibition of collaged Polaroid photographs taken in Waterloo. Curated by the exhibiting artists, the show is indicative of a program that is now largely driven and managed by those who participate in it. From the outset, it has been important to have the works and relationships determine the policy and direction of the SSUAC. And so it will continue.

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