A valley of galleries

A creative community is flourishing in NSW's Northern Rivers region, writes Bronwyn McNulty.

What comes to mind when you think of a holiday up the east coast to Byron Bay and surrounds? Beaches, a certain spectacular lighthouse and perhaps a daytrip into the rolling green hinterland?

Throw in a handful of decent pubs and some markets, cafes, shops and restaurants and you have a reliable recipe for a laid-back break from city life.

What many don't know is that at the heart of this region beats a vibrant, prolific community of creative people churning out more art and culture than any visitor will have time to properly explore in one visit. Lismore Tourism says there are more "creative practitioners" in the Northern Rivers than in any region of Australia.

Between 2001 and 2006 employment in the arts and creative industries in the Northern Rivers grew 25 per cent faster than the rest of the regional economy, and in the same time period, the region recorded the highest creative industries employment growth in the state - more than double that of the Sydney growth rate - and the highest concentration of creative industry workers outside Sydney.

"There are, quite possibly, more actors, artisans, buskers, dancers, divas, filmmakers, musicians, painters, potters and performers, per capita, than anywhere else in the country," says visitlismore.com.au.

Local artist Katka Adams is not sure if it's the impressive geography of the region and the variety of natural wonders - including beaches, rainforests, waterfalls and mountains - that inspires residents to unleash their creativity, or simply a case of the lower cost of living attracting more artists to the area.

At first sight the unassuming regional centre of Lismore is little more than just that - an ordinary- looking town that services about 50,000 people from Lismore and surrounding villages.

However, as you amble along the three or four main streets and in and out of arcades, the artistic nature of this town becomes apparent.

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Lismore's "Back Alley Gallery" project has transformed Eggins Lane and other alleyways, with local and international artists turning drab laneway walls into vibrant works of art.

Artworks and handicrafts are on offer at many shops, and a number of the cafes and eateries are galleries too, including Goanna and Henry's Bakery, both in Keen Street, Luv a Coffee around the corner in Carrington Street, and the popular pizzeria Fire in the Belly in Dawson Street.

The Loft Restaurant, in a laneway off Magellan Street, has served excellent seasonal modern Australian cuisine in what was once Lismore's department store, AGR, since the late 1990s.

For another top-rate feed, visit the fully licensed Palate at the Gallery, next door to Lismore Regional Gallery in Molesworth Street. Chef Perry Hill is a local who learned his craft at Sydney's MG Garage as well as London's Rivercafe.

The Lismore Gallery, open every day except Mondays, has presented exhibitions generated specifically for the gallery by artists such as Roger Ballen, Julie Rrap, Sam Jinks, Alexander Seton, Tracey Moffatt, Margaret Olley and Patricia Piccinini.

Over summer Lismore artist Leigh Arnold (leigharnold.com) will be exhibiting his works - including 3D wall and floor art - inspired by quantum physics and string theory.

Arnold shares his Lismore studio space with artist Lae Oldmeadow (laeoldmeadow.com), who uses a combination of sewing, padding and painting to transform natural organic materials such as Bangalow palm fronds into striking works.

At long-established Melville House, owner Helen Opie collects local art to display in her six-room bed and breakfast. The grand family home was built in 1942 by Opie's grandfather and features the area's largest private swimming pool.

As well as visual arts, the region offers a rich variety of theatre, music, poetry and dance. The Northern Rivers Performing Arts (NORPA) is one of a few regional theatre companies in Australia that still produces its own work, while Lismore's oldest theatre, the Star Court Theatre, has been showing films since 1921.

GETTING THERE

Regional Express Airlines (REX) flies from Sydney to Lismore. By car, it's a 2½ hour drive south of Brisbane or a nine-hour drive north of Sydney. Jetstar and Virgin also fly to nearby Ballina and Gold Coast airports.

STAYING THERE

Eternity Springs Art Farm is a fitting home away from home for the creative (see eternitysprings.com), while Elindale House and Melville House are two lovely B&Bs (see stayz.com.au/accommodation/nsw/northern-rivers-byron-bay/lismore/67939; melvillehouselismore.com.au).

Suzanne's Hideaway, set in Clunes in the hinterland, offers a variety of self-contained accommodation (see suzanneshideaway.com.au).

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitlismore.com.au.

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