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A Taste for the Radical

In 1863, Ben Hall (‘the gentleman bushranger’) seized the town of Canowindra. The story goes that his gang held the entire township hostage at the local pub for three days and, with the local policeman locked away in the prison cell, proceeded to entertain them with food, wine and song. Two local sisters played the piano and sang, while the crowd danced. Afterwards the gang graciously picked up the tab, paying the hotelier for his troubles with cash stolen from a raid on the bank.

Today, another rebel hosts the parties in these parts; Bob Craven, along with the unwavering support of his wife Marg, ‘the love of my life’, runs Taste Canowindra. Taste Canowindra serves three-course meals, made with the finest regional produce, to the sound of internationally acclaimed musicians in a setting filled with the best of local arts and crafts.

As far as Maryanne Jacques of Art OutWest is concerned, Taste Canowindra ‘is really the only venue in the region that provides the setting for touring music acts looking for an acoustic, intimate setting…with fine food and wine.’

News has spread across the country of Bob’s special brand of hospitality; ‘they pick up the phone and ring us,’ he says of the many musicians who have travelled to play at Canowindra. ‘In terms of our relationship with musicians, we always try to under-promise and over-deliver. We feed them well, keep them in comfortable accommodation and do our utmost to provide a respectful and appreciative audience, so word gets around.’

The Cravens have hit upon a unique business model which allows them to support the community, particularly the arts, in a commercial enterprise, but Bob admits it’s a tough gig.

‘The visual arts market has been really hard going for the past couple of years, but we still manage to sell regional art,’ he says. ‘60% of attendance at our musical theatre evening travel more than 30 kilometres to see the shows. So we actually attract significant numbers of visitors not just to Canowindra but to the region.’

 

The creative scene has long been a passion of Bob’s, who was born and raised in Canowindra, but left as a young man to study in Sydney where he discovered events management, performance and music. ‘I was born in Canowindra in 1949 and after school moved to Sydney to attend UNSW where my love for the arts began. Following my involvement with PACT Theatre, rock musicals and various productions which involved New Zealand brother and sister group The Cleves, and Sun, a jazz rock group fronted by Renee Geyer, this collaboration with other members of The Leper Colony saw the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Johnny Allen, who was influential in enlisting me for a role in the promotion of The Nimbin Aquarius Festival.’

During the interview, Bob confessed to a journalistic past. He worked on student paper Tharunka with notorious writer Richard Neville (of OZ Magazine fame), in what can only be described as heady times. ‘We printed Eskimo Nell [a bawdy poem from the 1920’s] on the back of the magazine in a time of high censorship. It got us banned, so we published Tharunka underground for about six months running from printer to printer,’ he recalls. In a suffocating climate of censorship, he was part of the Libertarian movement of creatives who formed the frontier of Australia’s counterculture in the early 1970’s.

He remained in Nimbin following his work as an organiser of the Nimbin Aquarius Festival in 1973. It was here that his hobbyist interest in the ancient craft of hand-carving and embossing cow hide, inspired by the tradition of Spanish saddler, started. ‘I moved from Nimbin to South Australia in May 1983 where I met Marg, my partner in my artistic exploits from then on.’  He continued his work with fashion accessories, depicting Australian flora and fauna on leather bags.

‘By 1987 I had started to depict arid desert landscapes using emu leg leather appliqué on kangaroo leather, and Bewilderness Leatherworks began.’ One-off original handbags became the core product of the brand, which were marketed through joint exhibitions with other artists, up-market tourist venues nationally and exported to the USA, Japan and Europe.

When Bob relocated his family back to Canowindra to nurse his mother in 2001, it was the local arts scene that he threw his energy into. He and Marg joined the Canowindra Art Network (CAN), a group of artists and studio galleries who met regularly to develop arts trails to tap into central west arts tourism. Key initiators of the group were Melissa Barber  and David Isbester who both run galleries in Canowindra’s main street today.

At its peak, the group hosted two major exhibitions each year between 2002 and 2006. Bob convened the Canowindra Springest, the community arts festival.

‘It was largely a collaboration between CAN and the Canowindra wine industry which engaged the entire community. Over 100 artists participated as either exhibitors, facilitators of workshops or performers each year. The street carnival attracted close to 1,000 people and it featured music, dance, arts and craft stalls.’ Out of his work with the local wine industry, Bob realised the region needed a central tasting and sales outlet in Canowindra to develop the tourism economy.

‘Marg and I had sold our house in South Australia,’ he says. ‘we had $200,000 burning a hole in our pocket (knowing we were hopeless with loose cash). We decided to invest it in the future of Canowindra’s wine and arts industries.

 

For a place with a population of just 2,000 people, Canowindra boasts four galleries which is a remarkable concentration of creativity. Despite Bob’s particular brand of irreverence for “The Establishment”, he has built an arts establishment of his own since opening Taste’s door in 2005, leading the way for harvesting the creative capital of a region and uniting it in a successful enterprise. ‘They [Bob and Marg] have developed a really interesting model for a regional business that supports the community and works commercially,’ says Maryanne Jacques, ‘but they work pretty hard.’

Taste has hosted opera nights with Arts OutWest, and an open mic event on the last Sunday of each month, and has become a hub for the blues and folk music scene. It even became a home away from home for the Mongolian gold prospecting specialists who were staying within the town (for many, the first time they had ever been away from their families) on contract to the mines. ‘Taste had the contract to feed them breakfast,’ recalls Maryanne. It was not long before Bob discovered that there were musicians amongst the group and before long ‘he had them jamming with local musicians. They are good people, with a great belief in community.’

Bob says it has all been done with local support. ‘If someone is courageous (or, one might say, foolish) enough to embark on such an adventure they need the community’s support – no tall poppy syndrome – get behind them because it’s not as easy as it looks. Through the GFC we were on our knees and without crucial local support we would have perished and lost our life savings.’

‘Those years around the late 60’s were very exciting times…we thought we could change the world,’ he recalls, but his ambitions are no less lofty today. ‘I think still being here makes Marg and I most proud.’

 

Visit Taste Canowindra’s website for all upcoming events. http://www.tastecanowindra.com.au/

 

Story by Estelle Pigot

Image: Bob and Marg Craven, owners of Taste Canowindra.