Art and in­spi­ra­tion at Montsal­vat

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AUSTRALIA - JU­LIA PA­TRICK

In bush acreage at Eltham, just 20km from the Mel­bourne CBD, is the cul­tural trea­sure-house of Montsal­vat. Here, art in many forms is cre­ated, ex­hib­ited, taught and per­formed, from paint­ing, portraiture, glass and ce­ram­ics to tex­tiles, jew­ellery craft, in­stru­ment mak­ing and per­for­mances of mu­sic and drama.

In the early 1930s, fol­low­ing the stim­u­la­tion and in­flu­ence of Euro­pean travel, ar­chi­tect and painter Jus­tus Jor­gensen con­ceived the idea of a colony built by artists for artists. Soon he col­lected an equally en­thu­si­as­tic band of sup­port­ers to re­alise what was, at the time, a rad­i­cal idea; their bo­hemian life­style is all part of Montsal­vat’s leg­end.

Mud brick cot­tages be­came the first “res­i­dences”, soon fol­lowed in 1938 by the im­pos­ing Great Hall. It was a time when Mel­bourne’s early build­ings were be­ing de­mol­ished, pro­duc­ing a cor­nu­copia of her­itage sal­vage. Many ar­chi­trave mould­ings, stone bal­conies, gar­goyles and lime­stone-framed win­dows were re­cov­ered and grad­u­ally in­cor­po­rated into the Montsal­vat es­tate.

The main en­trance is through The Barn, a cav­ernous, high-ceilinged space lead­ing to a charm­ing in­door-out­door li­censed cafe and the small Skip­per Gallery, which ex­hibits the work of Montsal­vat’s res­i­dent artists.

Montsal­vat is not a “guided tour” mu­seum. Vis­i­tors wan­der at leisure, around the gar­den and through unique build­ings, where an at­mos­phere of gothic fan­tasy and mys­tery hangs over rooms full of eclec­tic mem­o­ra­bilia ran­domly col­lected over the years.

A pea­cock may wan­der into the Great Hall, where an out­sized grand pi­ano re­mains where it was built as it is too big to move out. A cast-iron cir­cu­lar stair­case leads to an up­per gallery, while the del­i­cate trac­ery of carved gothic win­dows en­hances the Great Hall’s set­ting for con­certs of choral and cham­ber mu­sic and po­etry and lit­er­ary read­ings. From the me­dieval ban­quet hall, with its re­fec­tory ta­bles, carved chairs and heavy oak dressers, a mys­te­ri­ous stone pas­sage leads into the gar­den and nearby chapel, where a carved al­tar greets vis­i­tors and lit­tle pews line up be­side an orig­i­nal, an­tique pedal or­gan.

About 20 artists live at Montsal­vat; some have veg­etable gar­dens, a re­minder of the de­pri­va­tions of World War II, when Montsal­vat be­came a self-sup­port­ing farm. Oth­ers have their stu­dios in mud brick cot­tages or tiny work­shops set into lime­stone or gran­ite walls. Be­neath trail­ing vines, names on moss-cov­ered, half-hid­den doors tell us who worked there long ago. To­day’s glass­mak­ers and tex­tile de­sign­ers work along­side ce­ramic artists, painters, sculp­tors and metal work­ers. Teach­ing the art they love is a big part of the ethos of Montsal­vat. As gold­smith Si­mon Icarus Baigent says, “There is the joy of mak­ing small, mag­i­cal, beau­ti­ful things.”

Mu­si­cian Chris Wynne teaches his stu­dents the art of gui­tar mak­ing, us­ing Aus­tralian woods to cre­ate “in­stru­ments that sing.” For­mer watch­maker David Brown is com­mit­ted to the luthier’s life of cre­at­ing vi­o­lins and shakuhachi flutes, while Se­bas­tian Jor­gensen, son of Montsal­vat’s founder, de­votes his tal­ent to “much ne­glected” Abo­rig­i­nal mu­sic.

Af­ter years work­ing over­seas, tex­tile de­signer Jo Ludbrook has “come home”. Work­ing with Ja­panese silks, she says she finds, as many artists have done, “re­newed in­spi­ra­tion” in the sur­round­ings of Montsal­vat.

Gui­tar maker Chris Wynne, left; Montsal­vat, above

Jew­ellery maker Jeanette Dyke at Mon­sal­vat

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