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Northern Groundswell | Lismore


A subtropical university city in the far north of NSW, Lismore, is often overshadowed by its trendier, Northern Rivers neighbours in the creative stakes. However, Estelle Pigot discovered that there is a powerful groundswell of artistic activity and creative thinking happening in this eclectic regional hub.


Between the Coast & the Hippies

Welcome to Lismore, home to 30,000 folks and a roller derby. You might have heard of it before but be prepared to have your notions permanently reshuffled. It is the capital of a well-established artistic region in NSW but Lismore has often played second fiddle to towns and villages like Byron Bay and Nimbin. Boasting a unique university population and long-established residents, the simmering level of creativity that has seen Lismore become a town that marches to its own drum as its citizens finds underground expressions of the alternative soul of this region.

Tropical Fruits is a non-profit group established in 1988 and is the largest gay and lesbian social group on the Northern Rivers, if not all of regional NSW. The group hosts ‘crafternoons’ at their clubhouse in South Lismore, the aptly named ‘Fruit Bowl’, in the months leading to their New Year’s Eve parties to produce the creative décor for the events.

“This area is known for its artistic persuasions. There are a lot of creative people around,” says Events Coordinator and infamous drag queen, Maude Boat (Michael Gates), “and we are the rainbow region, after all. If anyone deserves a rainbow crossing, it’s us. We’re between the coast and the hippies up here.”

Her work involves organising the parade and parties and mentoring younger performers and artists along the way.  Every year Maude collaborates with Tropical Fruits’ artist-in-residence, who becomes the event’s Artistic Director.  This year, this position falls to Jackson Gooch, who has been shown in New York, and hails originally from Lismore. Together they will produce the 25th Anniversary parties with the theme Rainbow Circus. The group’s activities have been supported by the local council in the last 5 years.

“We’re a very, very eclectic community and open to all sorts of people who feel a sense of belonging here,” says Hannah Rice-Hayes, a member of Tropical Fruits. Jyllie Jackson, founder of Lightnup which puts on the annual Lismore Lantern Festival, would agree, “Lismore has a rich underbelly of creative activity. Lots of things happen here, ‘unofficially’.”

“With all the activity that happens, it’s like a beautiful compost with many people starting here and leaving to work in Sydney or Melbourne but then coming back again. Or people move here from trendier and sexier places on the coast because they find Lismore is real,” she says.  “People are pretty honest about the work they do here and it lacks some of the pretentiousness of other places. The exchange of people coming and going means that the creative scene is always being refreshed. Having the Uni here helps, we always have an awesome mix here of young people in visual arts, performing arts and music.”


The Body Eclectic

“Oh yes,” laughs Renee Moehead from Lismore City Council, “we are a very eclectic neighbourhood, and there are a lot of creative people up here. Any time I put a call out for something creative, all kinds of talents come out of the woodwork!”

A major success story coming out of this troppo town in the last few years is Back Alley Gallery. Renee is another child of Lismore, returned. She moved north, back to the town of her childhood, in January this year after years in Major Events for the Sydney Opera House, to take on her role as Lismore City Centre Manager. She handles the council side of the project which brokers relationships between shop-owners and graffiti artists. However, it is the really brainchild of local artist, Nathan Eyres, who wants to reclaim the streets of Lismore ‘Piece by Peace’.

“Nathan and Erin went to Council with their idea and they wanted to involve the local community, to show that street art is just that, art, and not just graffiti,” explains Renee. “I believe there was some resistance at first, but after Stage 1 went up and they could see the artworks, the local businesses began to offer up their walls” she says.

Now at Stage 5, Back Alley Gallery has transformed the urban cityscape of Lismore. Nathan has gathered local, regional and even international street artists (including Makatron and Ben Foster) to create a huge range of stencils, paste-ups and major pieces on the rear walls of buildings in the laneway complexes of the inner-city.

“Once the walls are done, they aren’t tagged anymore. We’ve had art up for 5 years and they haven’t been touched by other street artists. It’s a respect for the project and the artists,” says Renee. “Having grown up here, those laneways were littered with rubbish, you wouldn’t walk down there. Now we have the annual Back Alley Gallery Street party (which has attracted national hip-hop acts like Ozi Batla) and it is a place that not only attracts the younger crowd but you will see families with prams walking through. It’s about community, placemaking and beautifying those laneways for Lismore.” The Council will continue to support the project, they have launched a successful Pozible campaign and this year it attracted funding from The Seed Fund (established by known Australian musician John Butler).

The willingness to think differently, at all levels of the community, makes the difference in sunny Lismore. The councils and institutions recognise the significance of the work these community groups do, and support them. “The Lantern Festival is now recognised as an iconic, signature event for Lismore, by the council,” says Jyllie, who takes her lantern-making workshops to the far corners of the country including Victoria and the Gulf of Carpenteria.

“We provide lanterns for many of the University’s events, alumni presentations and do’s. We recently had one and afterwards they asked if they could keep the lanterns up for the students’ exams. So the students will sit their music exams lit by multi-pointed stars.”

Listen to Nathan Ayres talk about this project to the ABC.


Industrious Communities & Real Outcomes

“There were a lot of street artists who were trying to do it ‘off the record’, but who have now been involved with our project and are being commissioned for paid work with local businesses,” says Renee when asked whether the Back Alley Gallery project has unearthed some working artists from reformed ‘taggers’ .

Art In The Heart is another project that threw the spotlight onto this tropical city when it launched. Lismore’s answer to the empty spaces movement, it was inspired by the Newcastle Renew work driven by Marcus Westbury and received tremendous support from Arts Northern Rivers. The empty shopfronts hosted an array of creative cottage businesses and artistic practices, solo and group art exhibitions, workshops, forums, installations, poetry slams and film nights. Artists who participated in the project, found themselves exposed to broader markets and commission opportunities.

The imagineers from LightnUp Inc are a crew of all sorts and it is fundamental to Jyllie that the work they do is inclusive and healing. Her personal battle with depression was part of the inspiration for the lantern festival, 20 years ago and has given her first-hand experience in the importance of art as a tool for recovery.  The volunteers who help make the festival possible include people who are unemployed, people with disabilities and CWA’s (“Creative Women with Attitude”). Their projects have been included in work-for-the-dole programs, student placements, parole integration programs and working with those who have experienced trauma, such as victims of devastating flooding in Queensland and refugees.

Jyllie says, this gorilla community arts project’s aim is “to lighten the hearts of communities across Australia and beyond, through art based activities.” This is a common theme for anyone who talks to the many fascinating and unique creative Lismore locals, who are working to make their home a place unlike any other, and somewhere quite extraordinary to visit. It’s just … the vibe.