With thanks to Wendy Stephens and Christine Cansfield-Smith for sharing their insights and providing alternatives to my mediocre photography.
Mayday Hills is surely one of Beechworth’s most enthralling treasures. Its acres of graceful old parkland have a serene, melancholy feel
and the buildings, with their worn surfaces and shadowy windows, give us a sense that the past is still very much with us.
This is a place that has seen many stories, some intriguing and strange, some desperately sad. And when we are here we can feel them. The past seems to seep from the walls.
Since it closed as a mental asylum Mayday Hills has been used in a variety of ways, but recently one particular group of people have been captivated by its potential.
An atmospheric and beautiful place rich with history, layers of flaking plaster and paint, long echoing corridors, generous rooms with high ceilings and soft light, gardens with quiet corners. Is it any wonder that Mayday Hills has become a home for local artists?
Vitality, colour, creativity.
The establishment of the Mayday Hills Art Society has come about largely due to the inspiration of two women. Wendy Stephens, Beechworth resident for over twenty years, is a painter of vivid landscapes and has long experience with pastel life drawing.
Christine Cansfield-Smith is a botanical artist who has run many classes, workshops and exhibitions in Canberra and the Beechworth area.
For the Community
In 2011, after Latrobe University closed their Beechworth Campus and put the site up for sale, two Beechworth businessmen, George Fendyk and Geoff Lucas, bought it. They could see that the large, atmospheric and historically significant area was important for the community and hoped that it could be re-vitalised by small tenants pursuing community and cultural activities.
Christine: “George put an ad in the paper saying if anybody wants to start an art co-op come and see me. I rang Wendy and said what do you think?”
Wendy: “I read it too and thought how wonderful but it’s too much work for just me. Then Christine rang …”
Wendy and Christine resolved to develop an art society. They approached George and Geoff and, after some negotiation, began planning. The society was to be modelled on the older art societies around Australia. It was to be for the benefit of the Beechworth community, providing a structure which would help local people develop as artists.
“We wanted to make it a comfortable meeting place for anyone interested in art or artists.” Christine.
Practicalities: Exhibitions and Sausages
The first necessity was money.
In April 2017, Christine organised “Beechworth Botanica”, an exhibition of botanical art in the Memorial Hall, with work from all over Australia. It was a resounding success and the commissions from sales provided some of the money to start the society.
To supplement the funds, Christine and Wendy went four times to the Beechworth Farmers’ Market, selling gourmet sausages.
Practicalities: Ceilings, Walls and Floors
Then began the process of moving in. They were to occupy the ground floor of one long wing near the Bijou Theatre, a place that had been used to teach nursing. The building hadn’t been used for about ten years.
The society, consisting at that stage of six people, began the renovations. They cleared the mess out, scrubbed floors and painted every wall. There was a small and basic kitchen, which needed to be cleaned up. Latrobe had carpeted the area, but the ceiling was half falling down. Christine’s husband, Peter Leppert rebuilt it.
It wasn’t easy work.
“It’s freezing in August. It’s cold in winter. We are working on that.” Christine.
But the work was worth it. The Society was quickly embraced by the Beechworth community.
“We had 70 members the day we opened. Everyone is so enthusiastic about it.”
A Wonderful Resource
Today the society provides studio spaces for artists and communal rooms to promote interaction and inspiration.
Anyone interested in the arts and arts-related social activities can join as community members and will receive regular email updates about functions and events. This is a way of enabling the community to stay in contact with their local artists.
The society provides eleven studio spaces, in shared or individual rooms, at a very low rent, which helps to cover ongoing costs.
There are also joint spaces in the building, such as a wet room and kitchen. One area will be kept as a “hot space” for different artists to rent for a week or so at a time.
A gallery space, with track lighting and hanging fixtures, is made available for members to stage exhibitions.
There is a low stage for small performances.
A lounge-library has books about art and there is a generously sized classroom where workshops are run in summer and autumn.
“Coming up here you actually become a professional artist because you are coming to work in a place, rather than just dabbling on the kitchen table. You start to tell yourself you are an artist.” Christine.
“You stretch yourself.” Wendy.
“When you come here, ideas rub off the different people.” Christine.
The artists who work there find the atmosphere calming.
“It’s very quiet and the gardens outside make it special. People can come and go as they choose. They have a key and can work all night if they want.” Wendy.
And the old buildings of Mayday Hills, with their layers of history, are not only maintained, they are revitalised with colour and creative energy.