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The wild coastline and dense bushland of Victoria’s Surf Coast inspires photographers, designers and artists of all kinds.
Story: Rachel Wells
Stewart Guthrie has lived on Victoria’s Surf Coast for almost two decades. His patch is an expansive 38 acres of green rolling hills, just a few kilometres from Bells Beach.
Ten years ago friends asked Stewart, who lives and works on the property producing timber wine cases and promotional boxes, if they could use one of his sheds to make furniture.
Today Ashmore Arts is home to three workshops and 16 purpose-built weatherboard studios that take design cues from Brighton’s bathing boxes. Inhabitants range from visual artists and graphic designers to ceramicists, furniture makers, film producers and animators.
The Surf Coast was the fourth-largest hot spot in the country for employment in creative industries.
“I never set out to establish this creative precinct, as such. We were just going to live and work on the property,” Stewart says. “A few people started requesting workshops, so we built a couple and it really flourished from there ... We now have a waiting list because we can’t keep up with the demand.”
Earlier this year the Regional Australia Institute conducted a study, based on 2016 census data, which found the Surf Coast local government area – stretching from Torquay and Jan Juc, past Anglesea to Aireys Inlet and Lorne – had the highest proportion of creative jobs in country Victoria.
Byron Bay in northern NSW topped the list of the most creative regional centres in Australia, but the Surf Coast was the fourth-largest hot spot in the country for employment in creative industries.
‘Torquay and surrounds have been dominated by the surf industry but bubbling beneath has been this creative art and design scene.’
The Surf Coast also ranked in the top three for regional employees in architecture, design and visual arts and made the top five for advertising and marketing. Stewart isn’t surprised. “For a long time Torquay and surrounds have been dominated by the surf industry but always bubbling beneath... has been this creative art and design scene that has only recently become more commercialised.”
Torquay is home to Rip Curl’s global head office and Quiksilver’s Asia Pacific headquarters – two multimillion-dollar surfwear brands born on the Surf Coast in the late 1960s. They employ hundreds of professionals, from art directors and graphic designers to web developers and marketing professionals.
“On top of that you’ve got dozens of smaller businesses who supply to these huge global brands,” says Simon Loone, the Surf Coast Shire Council’s Business and Tourism Strategy Coordinator.
Many of these creative people have left the surf industry but stayed in the region to launch their own businesses.
Jan Juc-based illustrator and graphic designer Natalie Martin is one example. Natalie, who worked as an art director at Rip Curl for five-and-a-half years, now runs her own illustration and graphic design business out of Ashmore Arts.
“I moved down in 2009 for the job but I left that three years ago to pursue my own creative path. But I didn’t want to leave the coast,” she says.
‘People are now more willing to take the leap and move down here.’
She is an avid beachgoer and surfer, and spends half her time working on graphic design projects and the other half producing her own limited-edition prints and stationery.
Natalie’s most recent prints feature a contemporary and colourful take on native Australian flowers she has collected from around her studio. In the nine years she has lived in Jan Juc she says the number of people running creative businesses has boomed.
“People are now more willing to take the leap and move down from Melbourne because they know there is this thriving creative industry down here.”
Simon says: “People are attracted to the area by the environment, by the surf itself and its proximity to Melbourne. And now with the internet, people can enjoy a beach lifestyle and still do serious creative business.”
Two years ago ceramicist Chela Edmunds did just that. She had spent four years in New York as a textile designer for fashion companies Vera Wang and DKNY and returned to Melbourne in 2012 to launch her ceramics business, Takeawai, from a small studio in North Melbourne.
‘I was sick of living in big cities.’
Chela is a keen surfer who grew up in Queensland and northern NSW. “I was sick of living in big cities and when I came down here and saw Ashmore Arts I immediately knew that’s where I wanted to be. I begged Stewart until he eventually built me a studio,” she says.
Chela creates edgy, handcrafted tableware and homewares in pastel and sunset hues and turquoise blues. She says her decision to move to the Surf Coast was also driven by the strength of the creative community and its access to Melbourne, just 100 kilometres away.
“You don’t find too many coastal, country places that are so close to a creative city like Melbourne. My work is always inspired by what’s around me. And there’s no shortage of it here.
“I tend to take a lot of photographs of the beach and sunsets and although I don’t consciously think about it, when I look at my pieces, I go ‘well, yeah it’s pretty obvious what’s inspired me’.”
‘I’m looking out the window from my studio right now and I can see eight different species of birds.’
Jan Juc-based artist Geoffrey Carran is widely recognised for his unique paintings of Australian birds and colourful public murals. The New Zealand-born artist moved to the Surf Coast from Melbourne with his wife and fellow artist, Rowena Martinich, in 2012.
“It was having access to world-class surf that drew me here but also that connection to nature,” says Geoffrey, who surfs most afternoons. “I’m looking out the window from my studio right now and I can see eight different species of birds,” he says. “When you’re working in a creative profession it’s important to be in a place that stimulates you.”
Rowena is known for her use of radiant colour and major public art projects, both here and overseas.
“In Melbourne, my studio was a dodgy old house in Prahran that was about to get bulldozed. Being down here just gives me a totally different headspace to create work in.”
Bellbrae-based photographer Amelia Anderson, who moved from Geelong four years ago, says the beauty of her environment influences her work “massively”.
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“We’re at the beach a lot and we’re always going for these beautiful walks and I just find it brings down my stress levels and allows me to be more creative and more productive,” says Amelia, a mother of three.
In recent years, she has gained national exposure for her dramatic magnified images of birds and wildlife, many of which are native to the Surf Coast.
“I take a lot of my photos down here and as far along as Kennett River (between Lorne and Apollo Bay). There’s just so much to be inspired by and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to not just live here but also run a successful, commercial business.”