Making Spaces: an introduction to the arts scene in Newcastle with Renew Newcastle

by Anna Blanch on April 4, 2012

Do you want to see your community revitalized? do you want to encourage the artists and creatives in your towns and cities? Would you like to see a model for turning vacant retail and commercial office space into vibrant contributions to your local economy and bring colour and life to otherwise depressed retail areas?

Then you definitely want to check out Renew Newcastle. The brain child of creative director, Marcus Westbury, and headed up by Managing director Marni Jackson, Renew Newcastle seeks to match empty retail spaces with artists looking to exhibit, make and sell their wares. It’s about so much more than just this, however, and i’m doing it shortshrift to focus just on this one utilitarian function.

In any case, last week I joined a tour of some of Renew’s projects as it ambled around the hunter mall and celebrated a number of projects opening their doors. Renew Newcastle described the event like this:

Renew Newcastle has recently supported six new local creative projects to open up and activate shops around the Hunter Street Mall area. We’d like to introduce you to the artists and designers who are enlivening the city centre and making Newcastle’s revitalization their business. You’ll discover young, independent local fashion designers; contemporary jewellery design; a vintage photobooth and lo-fi photography gallery; Roller Derby sticker design; delicate papercut illustration; millinery; and fantasy clock sculptures which have to be seen to be believed.

For those in other parts of Australia and North America interested in following up on this concept, the Renew Australia project headed up by Marcus Westbury and others (in conjunction with Renew Adelaide and Renew Townsville) should be a great starting point. Marcus’ personal web site is at For those in the UK and Europe, I would definitely start with Dan Thompson and Empty Shops. I did an interview with Dan for Transpositions a while back that will give you some more information on their model: it was titled Artists and makers in Community.

Okay, so onto the tour itself…

 It’s About Time is home to “surreal clock sculptures” by Karl Claydon. Combining chronographic obsession with the skill of role playing gameboard maker, Karl Claydon presents a series of works which almost assault the occular senses. Destined for a niche aesthetic market, these works demonstrate hours and hours of labour. The manual dexterity alone required to manipulate the small and (one suspects) brittle pieces is quite impressive. They are not to my taste, but Claydon certainly has a style and a vision worked out.

I liked the atmosphere of Studio Melt so much I went back after the ‘official’ tour was done. Featuring Contemporary silver jewellery by Angela Hailey and Suzy Manning and a clothing line by The Little Room, this airy shop space features an open jewellery studio where Hailey and Manning make some of their pieces.

The open benchtops and studio space will offer customers the opportunity to see these makers in action. This can often be a great thing for those who don’t understand the effort and skill necessary to create gold and silversmithed pieces of jewellery. Although it can be risky and distracting for makers themselves. I hope it proves to be inspiring rather than off-putting for Hailey and Manning. I was particularly struck by Angela Hailey’s (pictured below) dragon-fly inspired collection. The fine features of the dragon-fly wings and their repetetive patterns provided inspiration to Hailey’s collection of earrings, necklaces and cuffs. The cuff was particularly skilful and my favourite piece in the collection. It is visible in the bottom left of the image.


Hailey was also nice enough to reattach my etched cameo by Kate Pickering (one of my favourite contemporary scottish jewellery makers) to its chain after its sharp edges got snagged on someone in the melee of the tour. It certainly assauged my disappointment at that little incident!

 Strip of a Lifetime is a vintage photobooth, analog photography gallery and vintage props hire station lovingly curated by Paula Birch. This was probably the most spectacular fitout in terms of aesthetics. They took a nothing space and really created something beautiful. I would love to go back and try that vintage photobooth sometime soon!

It occurred to me that I hadn’t taken many photographs while looking around and then I remembered how much I enjoyed the experience of standing in front of their wall of vintage objects lovingly and skillfully displayed. It was one part museum, one part ironic take on material culture of 1960s-1980s Australia and two parts artist having a wonderful time. The use of colour, the reflection and playfulness in regard to utility and shape and placement was precise but not persnickety. It didn’t take itself too seriously and yet wasn’t sloppy. In fact, i was so enamoured by the 10ft high wall of objects I didn’t even really look at the gallery display of photographs. To be honest, I really didn’t need another reason to drop by again, but now that I have one…

NOOK features streetwear, skateboard decks and accessories by young local fashion designers One Undone, Ruby & George and ATGSL Skateboards. The fitout works for this great location on hunter street mall, and if this isn’t a commercial success it would be a massive shame. With a clear audience and market, this group of street fashion designers have a clear design aesthetic and have pulled together a great looking store in a matter of weeks.

Next up we ventured up the escalator into an elevated covered mall area next to hunter mall.

Like many, I really didn’t know what I was in for with  The Chop-Shop Clinic. As we waiting for the large numbers of people milling about to move through the studio and gallery space I overheard a number of people asking whether this was a deli or butchers! Part studio, part gallery for artist and designer united in their love of a sharp blade: papercut illustrations by Sarah Dunn and vinyl stickers for Roller Derby by NataLickiT SticksiT have created  a space which seeks to mesh too quite different design aesthetics. It is not altogether successful. However, they seem to understand the manic nature of their joint space and hammed it up with a psych clinic theme on opening night. I was definitely more impressed with NataLickiT’s stickers than the papercut, but that is likely because I’ve spent so much time observing the work of Charlotte Trimm and Rob Ryan over the last 12 months. But I look forward to seeing how this space gives both Dunn and her fellow designer a chance to expand their artistic practice and play off each other. I’m sure I haven’t seen the best of what Dunn is capable.

I didn’t make it to the last stop on the tour,  Crooked Crow Couture unfortunately. If you’re interested, Crooked Crow features original handcrafted wearable textile art in the form of masks, millinery, veils and accessories by Lorri Hollis. I’m definitely going to take a look next time i’m in the Hunter mall.

I did, however, get a chance to visit some of the other Renew Newcastle spaces after the tour was finished including:  Makespace – where art & craft spoon, Little Papercup – paper based design & illustration 9although it looks like this might be closing up shop soon if the signs are anything to go by) and  Odditorium Vintage.

Odditorium Vintage is described as being full of “kooky installations, vintage inspired art & objects, and vintage clothing.” If you like Taxidermy, vinyl and vintage clothing then this is definitely a place to visit and enjoy.

I wondered more than once how many of these objects were sourced. Quite a few of the taxidermy pieces – like the skunk!- are obviously originally from the northern hemisphere. Quirky, yes, but I’ll leave the taxidermy for others to enjoy – the vintage clothing is of far more interest to me. Also, if you’re into vinyl, be sure to check the odditorium facebook page and I think they have a vinyl sale coming up soon.

Unfortunately,  I didn’t get a chance to to visit two other  Renew Newcastle support projects, Shannon Hartigan Images which features landscape photography and Run Amok which specialises in custom dance clothing & accessories. As you might be able to tell,  Renew Newcastle has helped to facilitate a wide range of creative enterprises into studio and retail spaces. I look forward to seeing how they expand this into office space for creatives who aren’t in need of retail spaces.

My only criticism of what was a great night is that I think the tour petered out before it was finished because of the sheer number of people (somewhere around 75 or so). I lost the tour leaders and had no idea whether there was more or if we were finished. Of course, even in the midst of that small criticism, the support and number of people interested is heartening!

I look forward to meeting with more of the artists involved and interviewing some of them in the next couple of months. All in all I met some great people and felt introduced to one aspect of the arts scene here in Newcastle. I look forward to seeing more of it.

All photos (except the Renew Newcastle image) are by Anna Blanch. Please contact for permission if you’d like to use/reproduce elsewhere.


While I’m at it, let me plug my series, Yarning with Artists series. It is about celebrating artists and the work they are creating and sharing. If you have a suggestion for an artist to be featured in this series, send an email to

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Writer, photographer, and scholar, Anna Blanch, is the founder of Goannatree and one of the founders of Transpositions. Anna loves encouraging thoughtful engagement with the arts. Anna is in the final stages of her PhD at the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Art at the University of St Andrews, Scotland though she recently sought out warmer climes (and that yellow orb in the sky she was beginning to think lost), making her home in the beautiful beach city of Newcastle. When she’s not writing her doctoral thesis, she’s writing something else, has a camera in her hand, is seeking out some fresh produce, or is training in hopes of finishing the 2012 city to surf!


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