Art, wine and wit

Lance Richardson follows an inspirational trail through the towns of the central west.

For the French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, inspiration came via absinthe and a house of ill repute. I try 1080, named after fox poison, in a former house of ill repute but nobody's expecting a similar stroke of genius here.

Surrounded by a troupe of Mudgee's famous winemakers, Roth's Wine Bar is a far cry from the decadence of fin de siecle Paris, though history exudes from every corner. The upstairs office was originally, ahem, a bedroom. And nuns once painted the shopfront black to hide the sinning within, long before the drinkers moved in and the sin of choice shifted to an oaked shiraz. The owner, Kirsty Stokes, slides another glass of 1080 across the table.

It occurs to me that this is an odd way to start an artist's driving trail through the area.

Mudgee has long played host to the appreciative gourmand. A 3½-hour drive from Sydney, it offers all the trimmings of a world-class wine region with 40 wineries and cellar doors nestled in a stunning landscape of Australian bush.

Prizes fly thick and fast - even the most cursory sampling will tell you why. But there's another element to the blend that makes up the vibrant community here. Artists have flocked to the region for years - or been made by it. Creativity is in the soil (literally, for the potters). I quickly understand why Tim Finn, performing recently at Roth's, asked Stokes if he could come back. ''Shouldn't I be asking you that?'' she'd replied incredulously.

I'm staying at Beverley House, an 1862 colonial mansion recently restored after a brief stint as council housing. In the morning I wake to find a roaring fireplace surrounded by every style and form of art imaginable: a kookaburra watercolour over an art-nouveau sideboard; an impressionist painting of a chair; a Greco-Roman-style sculpture; a bed like a vaulted cathedral. The proprietors, Bill and Terry, have drawn on years in dealing antiques to construct their own museum.

During breakfast delivered to my private sitting room, I absorb inspiration before embarking on a trail that will cross the breadth of the region and involve a dozen materials, culminating, if all goes well, in the production of my own minor masterpiece.

My first stop is in the heart of Mudgee, hidden behind a cafe with a small sign in its window: ''Unattended children will be fed espresso, followed by a red cordial chaser and a free kitten.'' TheMudFactory is one for the kids.

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With a devoted patronage of five- to 15-year-olds, a haphazardly divided shed acts as a production house for drawing, painting, print-making, mosaics, digital photography and ceramics. I perch beside a small girl kneading a pile of clay. Tomorrow she could be making a Thai kite or an African-inspired batik. Today, however, the project is a coffee cup with eyes and lolling tongue. ''That's disgusting!'' says her mother proudly.

Toni Behrens presides over the scene with the casual air of an artist at home in chaos. With her husband, Warwick, a short visit to Mudgee became an extended tenancy when they put out a sign advertising art classes. Several changes of venue later, the current term has 40 student enrolments (and additions when parents want to visit the wineries in peace).

''Our next plan is non-profit status, so we can make the classes accessible to the wider community and involve more artists with the availability of grants,'' Toni says.

Already, the offerings surpass those of any comparable art school I grew up with. We never had a character such as Peter Richards, with 15 years of experience in the movie and animation industry. Under his tutelage, TheMudFactory has its own kind of Industrial Light & Magic studio. ''Kids aren't good actors,'' he says, ''so we made them watch Edison's early films and imitate them.'' I'm shown a production of two boys remaking J. Stuart Blackton's The Enchanted Drawing (1900), where a man sketches objects on an easel and lifts them into reality. Even now the rudimentary effects are surprising and the boys found themselves minor celebrities when the short was shown at Mudfest, an international short-film festival held locally every March. It was the climactic light-sabre battle - absent from the original - that clinched the fan base.

After a morning of Dada ceramics with the kids, I drive to Gulgong. ''Every child is an artist,'' Picasso once said. ''The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.'' Cudgegong Gallery might hold a clue.

A 19th-century gold rush town, Gulgong's claim to fame is its representation on the original $10 note behind Henry Lawson, who spent time here as a youngster. The roads are narrow and the shop fronts heritage-listed, which means the town feels oddly anachronistic with ''ye olde'' signage above the ATM.

Somewhere in the tangle of streets, Cudgegong Gallery is hosting an exhibition opening. I slide into the motley crowd; everyone who doesn't have a child playing rugby has come for the Saturday morning exhibition launch, with ceramics downstairs and painting upstairs. ''It's always a lovely thing coming here,'' says the artist, Royston Harpur, kicking off proceedings. As he describes the underappreciated majesty of ceramics I wander among the pieces, laid out on a forest of white pillars.

One by Bill Samuels, One dog too many, is a curious arrangement of flowers and porcelain. ''The global warming debate was in the air,'' the artist's statement reads. ''The Antarctic ice shelf was breaking up and the daisies at Hartley were full in bloom.'' Suddenly the artwork resolves itself into the pieces of a fractured glacier sprouting flowers. It is an oddly poetic image in an unexpected medium and an unexpected place.

Why unexpected? A long tradition has created an unjust divide between art and craft, Harpur says.

There's a tendency to assume that certain forms and subjects are ''fine'' and that certain galleries are more respectable than others. Cudgegong Gallery might be far from the bright lights of the capital but parochial it is not.

Yet remoteness is a hot topic here. Mandurah Studio, a craft co-operative at the carefully restored Mudgee Railway Station, has a petition bearing 3000 signatures to reverse a state government decision in 2006 that stopped passenger trains to the region.

''Everybody wants to get on the trains,'' says Jan Kenworthy, a local potter. ''They don't want to drive. They want to relax.''

I scribble my name down - the more options, the better - but I appreciate driving, too. How else can you visit the eccentric owner of Lue Pottery, Des Howard, who makes chain mail by hand? Or amble along the Bells Line of Road, visiting orchards? It's while driving to the standout cellar doors of Logan Wines and Huntington Estate I see the sun set over the blue hills of Mudgee - a breathtaking sight.

Eventually the time comes for my own artistic moment and I head to a fork in the road between two scenic wine trails. This is Fairview ArtSpace, with a windmill, well and vineyard. Next to the Small Wine Makers Centre and Gulgee Wool Shed, ArtSpace has a charming gallery and a small cafe but it's Ross and Judy Kurtz's workshop I'm after. Both accomplished painters with a long exhibition history, a day of their guidance will lead me through a landscape in acrylics from the first coat to the final signature.

Judy takes the lead, propping up a finished piece for us to copy. We do a rough sketch in blue and for much of the process the canvas looks like a terrible Matisse, all blotches of colour and suggestive lines. Then the undercoat is done and we start on the homestead with its curl of chimney smoke. The trees take their place; a mountain range appears. Ross gives me pointers, boosting my roller-coaster morale as he mixes colours and directs perspective.

We take a break for a bite at the cafe and a drop of Two Furlongs Merlot from next door. A guitar materialises for an impromptu celebration of the Beach Boys.

Then it's more industry and sweat and an Indian Yellow with a little red, and suddenly the picture isn't half bad. Out of the swirl a scene emerges, fully formed. Ross tips his fedora as I, dumbfounded, sign my name. After all the inspiration that's been gathered along the way, even I produce something you could hang on a wall.

Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of Mudgee Region Tourism.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Mudgee is a 3½-hour drive west of Sydney, either along the Great Western Highway through the Blue Mountains or, for a scenic alternative, the Bells Line of Road via Kurrajong.

For help in planning an artistic escape, phone the Mudgee Visitor Information Centre on 6372 1020 or see www.visitmudgeeregion.com.au.

Staying there Beverley House has four apartments, each with a queen bed, private lounge and kitchenette. On weekends rooms cost from $195 a night for two people, including full breakfast and cheese platter on arrival. Midweek rooms cost from $175 and special offers are available for three nights or more. Phone 6372 4225, see www.beverleyhouse.com.au.

Things to do

TheMudFactory's art classes are aimed at school-aged children and run on Tuesday-Thursday afternoons. School holiday programs are also available for part- or full-day sessions. For high-school students and adults, private tuition is available on request. Phone 6372 2250, see www.themudfactory.com.au.

Cudgegong Gallery in Gulgong is a 20-minute drive from Mudgee. A contemporary space that specialises in local and world-class ceramics, it has four major exhibitions a year. See www.cudgegonggallery.com.au.

Mandurah Studio at the Mudgee Railway Station is a craft co-operative with works by local artists. Phone 6372 2822.

Fairview ArtSpace has a gallery behind its cafe and an extensive program of workshops in acrylics, felt making and screen printing. See www.fairviewartspace.com.

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