Australia’s “poorest” town stunned the stuffy art world with an audacious project ten years ago. Nowa Nowa, a speck on the map in East Gippsland, never rested on its easel. Andrea Lane discovers there’s a lot to love about the hidden gem art town.
Four hours east of Melbourne, where the number of towns reeeally begin to thin out toward the NSW border, Nowa Nowa (population 198), is the very essence of an “unpolished gem”. Somehow this town’s reputation for artiness seems all out of whack with its innocuous blink-and-you-miss-it appearance.
Suggestion 1: Stop. Don’t be fooled by VicRoads’ evil plan to whisk you past Nowa Nowa as quickly as possible. Prepare to stop – and stay awhile.
For starters, there’s the nature – lake, gorge, forest, mountain all within one square mile (or so). For seconds, the whole lot is connected by a web of walks, tracks and waterways. And for thirds, there are two rather surreally hospitable caravan and camping parks, where you can park at any angle, light campfires, swim in waterholes and catch fish.
But fourthly, and perhaps most surprisingly, if you mention Nowa Nowa to most Gippslanders, they’ll tell you “it’s where all the artists are”.
Confession 1: It’s not quite true. The residents keep pretty much to themselves . . . lifelong locals, livin’ the life . . . going about their business. Catching up at the general store while they’re checking the mail and picking up the paper; pony club people; fishing folk and timber mill men.
In the Beginning It Was Nudes
So no, they’re not all artists. But there’s certainly art. And it’s certainly impressive.
Of course it’s impossible to say where all the artiness began. But most would agree that it started with the launch of the (gasp) Nowa Nowa Nudes art show in 2001.
No-one had taken too much notice ’til then. But was it possible the “poorest” town in Australia was putting on the poshest, richest and most fun art show in regional Victoria? (Um, perhaps a few unsubstantiated claims there). But it was indeed ambitious. And it’s fairly true.
Here in this little hall on the hill, jam-packed with nudes, was the most curiously audacious art show. A traditional timber town – with little actual infrastructure, let alone a “gallery” – had created an art show out of thin air. No money. No equipment. No lights. No nothing.
All they had was . . . chutzpah. Okay, there was an artist, a school teacher with a flair for finger food, an enthusiastic doctor with a sense of adventure, a bunch of school boys from Orbost willing to serve hors d’oeuvres and – thank heavens – loads of Gippsland artists, busting to embrace the notion.
And so the Nudes was born. A decade on, it’s become an enigmatic bi-annual event. There’s always an air of chaos (essential), hundreds of artworks, thousands of visitors, and an army of volunteers. Usually squashed into as small a space as humanly possible. The PA system regularly fails, but the crowd doesn’t care.
They come because it’s so . . . so . . . ridiculously excellent. Because the best artists in the region (and beyond) agree to turn their hand to nudes – just for the hell of it. Just to say they’ve been a part of it.
Then There were MORE Nudes
Tickled by success and nude notoriety, Nowa Nowa now looks for the art potential in every opportunity, and tucked away in every nook and cranny of this tiny town is more secret art.
Suggestion 2: Stay over. Nowa Nowa is best discovered at leisure. This is a place for walking, cycling, canoeing and camping – and the art is best found and viewed in that frame of mind.
The Nudes (in November) is no doubt the signature event (the must-do bit) – but there are traces of art (and nudes) all over the place.
Sculptures along the edge of Lake Tyers came first. Then followed the hand-hewn petanque piste embedded with sculpted nudes (Nudes on the Verge), built between the Nowa Nowa Gorge and the “million star-rated” Nowa Nowa Caravan Park. Friday evenings in summer become an international melting-pot as happy campers toss their boules and share the barbie with locals, whether there’s a crowd of four or 40 – and it could be either.
Suggestion 3: Shoot for a Friday arrival in the summer months and rendezvous on the Piste. (Have your boules in the boot, or borrow some from the Collectables Shoppe directly opposite).
All good stuff, but no, the art doesn’t stop there.
A few years ago, Nowa Nowa artist Gary Yelen decided that it would be a better proposition to convert a cute-ish, but horribly run down house into a living artwork, rather than rent it out for a pittance (and spend more on repairs than could ever be recouped in rent). The Art Home was born, and around 20 local artists were commissioned to recreate each room as a work of art.
The Art Home is an evolving artspace now morphing into “the next big thing” (a cooperatively run café for hungry stayers) but it retains its big ticket items for visitors to see. Out front, the neon “HOME” installation by Catherine Larkins and Indigenous artist Frances Harrison lights up the entire town on special occasions (much to the chagrin of the local councillors).
The Lacunary Cabinet is a stunning sunroom filled with works by Wollongong paper artist Jade Pegler and swamped with light and warmth. Precious Little is a short movie about local “gleaners” by Malcolm McKinnon that runs on the portable telly in the kitchen. And Mingled, the toothbrush installation by Nungurner gold and silversmiths Marcus Foley and Dore Stockhausen, is just a gobsmackingly world-class installation. Here? In Nowa Nowa? Yep.
Will Art Ever Stop?
And then there’s the piece de resistance – the artist-made minigolf course. Of course this minigolf has nothing to do with flat, fake turf – it’s pure kinetic art, with a dash of the absurd (and sometimes barely playable holes.) It’s not for the competitive minigolfer. It’s more for the sheer delight of knowing that grown-ups can live fanciful lives of art and whimsy. This is the real soul of the Nowa Nowa life.
Some of the holes were created as ephemeral artworks. Ice Bait and Tackle, for example, was a virtual minigolf game installed in a faux tackle shop. But several holes remain as permanent artworks – and new ones are being built “as we go”.
The Devil’s Hole-in-One (Hole #2) has been built in an abandoned slab shed by the ever-more famous installation artist, Cameron Robbins. His hole is based on the stories of the nearby (real) Devil’s Hole – an allegedly bottomless pool on the Nowa Nowa Arm of Lake Tyers.
Suggestion 4: Kayak from one Devil’s Hole to another (from the sculpture in town to the real thing on Lake Tyers). It’s just a couple of hours return journey, and you can hire canoes at Mingling Waters Café.
On Your Bikes
And now (cyclists take note!), as testimony to the town’s ongoing love affair with sculpture, eight artist-made bike racks have been created and installed throughout the town as it’s caught Mountain Bike fever.
More than 30km of (officially) world-class cross country bike tracks have just been installed, wending their way down the Mount, to complete the Nowa Nowa adventure. So now there’s not only the East Gippsland Rail Trail passing right through the town (from Bairnsdale to Orbost), but also a mountain bike park right in the middle of this very special landscape that embraces Lake Tyers, Nowa Nowa Gorge, Colquhoun Forest and Mount Nowa Nowa.
Suggestion 5: Bring your bike.
Or ride it here. V/Line runs from Southern Cross Station in Melbourne to Bairnsdale where the Rail Trail begins.
Come ready to explore – with sturdy shoes – and you’ll be rewarded with some unexpected, ever-changing, non-touristy adventures for
body and mind.
Nowa Nowa is 336km or 4.5 hours’ drive west of Melbourne on the Princes Hwy.
V/Line has a daily service leaving Southern Cross in the early morning and arriving about 4.5 hours later.
Accommodation Options //
Jumping Fish Place // jumpingfishplace.com
The Lake House is great for small groups (around 6-8) and the Lakeside Cottage is best for couples.
Mingling Waters // minglingwaters.com
Lots of different options here, from camping, to dormitory and cabins.
Nowa Nowa Camp & Caravan Park // nowanowa.com
Camping, on-site vans and an excellent Collectables shop.
Tostaree Cottages // tostareecottages.com
Lots of options – and has its own tavern.
Nowa Nowa Hotel // (03) 5155 7297, the first hotel-motel in Victoria!
Eating options //
Mingling Waters // The best option in town, specialises in vegetarian (I recommend the falafels) and slow food.
Nowa Nowa Hotel // For honest to goodness pub grub.
The Depot // Textiles workshop opposite Mingling Waters for coffee and cake.
Yelens Studio Gallery // Does good coffee and cake – and wood-fired pizzas for groups of eight or more.