From a frangipani-decorated St Peters brick factory has grown a thriving artist’s collective that’s provided studio and exhibition space to Inner West creative types for the last five years.
It was the “perfect frangipani tree bursting from a pot” at the back of a warehouse in St Peters that told Hellen Morgan Harris they had found their place at last. That sense of “human‐ness” in the old brick factory symbolised her dream of an Inner West artist collective; one she’d been chasing through countless rental properties around Sydney. Hellen’s husband Ran Stanton and their close friend and business partner Ed Horne were right behind her, already mentally planning where to build the workshops.
Now five years on, Tortuga Studios is a hub for arts in the Inner West, allowing Ran to fulfill a goal he had ever since becoming a props and set builder: “To work with all my mates, to have fun, to be a community.”
Ran met Hellen (known as H), a writer, editor and photographer, at a bush party in 1998. Neither imagined an artists’ studio beneath the chimneys of Sydney Park in their future, but H does recall their matching outfits with pocketed belts: a hint at their “synchronicity.” They were friends for years before becoming a couple; enough time to realise they made a good team. Both were wild‐eyed idealists, with different sets of practical skills they would weave together in the coming years. In 2005 they married at their own bush party.
It was their involvement in Mekanarky ‐ an artist collective in an old Turrella ice cream factory ‐ which first gave Ran scope for some ambitious projects like a Combi filled with eight tonnes of water, driven by a scuba diver. While H exhibited her photography and helped administer the space. However, when in 2007 Mekanarky “melted in the fierce glare of the developers’ sights,” as H puts it, they were already hooked and needed another warehouse.
Soon after, their “first squalling child” was born ‐ Tortuga Studios. Its workshops were filled with artists looking for somewhere to work, but also a community to work within. H took on multiple roles as co-director, administrator, curator, public relations and communications manager, artist liaison and bookkeeper. Unsurprisingly, she can always be spotted at Tortuga’s large‐scale group shows wearing a tired but triumphant smile.
And life has only gotten busier since then with Ran, H and Ed, having since started their own families. There are currently five children under three years old among the collaborators at Tortuga ‐ all boys, prompting jokes about a name change to ‘Tortuga and Sons.” After having Duke Billy, H’s time constraints tightened. She pared down the shows, bringing in artists Charlotte Hayward and Perran Costi, and gallery manager Lu Campbell Smith, to ensure Tortuga’s exhibitions continued to be “strong shows that people are fascinated by.”
H’s most cherished exhibition at the studio recently was part of Art Month 2013, Skein: Bound and Unravelled, featuring artist and muralist Andrea Davies as well as photographer and installation artist Garth Knight. She was also particularly proud of In the Night Garden: an extraordinary one-‐night festival of light, which was part of the Sydney Fringe and held outside in the studio’s laneway. Duke Billy attended the last one with his granny, an LED-lit balloon in each hand.
Growing up around Tortuga means he and the other kids are not fazed by “wonderful things,” like forklifts and canon balls, says H. The half-Valiant (a movie-viewing booth from an event entitled Road Trip) is the kids’ favourite place to hang.
Other kids have also had the opportunity to get inspired. In collaboration with Marrickville Council and the City of Sydney, Tortuga has held a series of kid’s workshops on sculpture, mural painting, screen printing and design: something H plans to do more of in the future.
Both Ran and Hellen agree that the long‐term goal for the space is to be financially sustainable. The commercial ventures that operate out of the space help, although things are always tight. But without Tortuga, Ran says he wouldn’t be able to create his bigger projects, like the sets and props for ABC3 kid’s show Steampunks and a giant solar powered windmill for the Harvest Festival.
H had hoped to power the whole festival with that windmill, and it’s at times like that that she says she is more the idealist of the pair. However, when bills come in for the studio, which runs on a not‐for‐profit basis and has trouble fitting funding boxes, she says it’s Ran who saves her sanity with “powerful dreams of what could be.”
They don’t always see eye‐to‐eye on running the space, but on Friday afternoons you’ll find them at the back of Tortuga with Ed and the other artists, having a beer and watching the sun set over the Inner West. That’s when any disagreements can be talked over and plans for the future take flight.
H and Ran have just signed another five-year lease, ensuring Tortuga Studios will remain a vital fixture of the Inner West art scene for the foreseeable future, inspiring new artist collectives, art lovers, students and kids with LED‐lit balloons for years to come. And the first thing they will all see upon entering the studio is the frangipani that first caught H’s eye. It now sits in the foyer, heralding the sense of human‐ness and creativity that has grown and blossomed in an old Inner West brick factory.
For more information visit www.tortugastudios.org.au, or find Tortuga St Peters on Facebook.
Words: Zoe Adler Bishop
• Tortuga Studios provides artist workshop spaces within a vibrant creative community and hosts regular large-‐scale group shows and out‐of‐the‐box exhibitions for independent Inner West artists.
• Seventeen artists are currently busy creating in the custom‐built workshop spaces. Among them are a cartoonist, architectural artist, wheelie bin sound system builder, AV expert, street artist, set‐builders, prop makers, special effects artists, photographers, a fashion designer, leather worker plus many more. With such a large pool of creative people they are able to take on many big projects such as set building and prop making for TV and film and large‐scale art installations for festivals and councils.
• Tortuga is part of the vibrant St Peters art’s precinct including MAYS, Index, Arcade Screen printing, Wundermite, Alpha House, Penguin Plays Rough and, most recently, Join the Dots.
• The next exhibition at Tortuga is part of Marrickville Council’s Open Marrickville festival. Local artist Ganbold Lundaa is exhibiting work inspired by a journey from Mongolia to Marrickville. Having just made the journey, the artist shows his new friends from the Inner West his insights through visual art, traditional Mongolian entertainment and local performers. For more information on the exhibition visit www.marrickville.nsw.gov.au/community/events65140/open.html
• And look out for Tortuga’s involvement in the upcoming Sydney Fringe Festival this September.