Sometimes there are things to see in your own back – yard. In the spirit of “ explore something new every day,” I cheated a bit when I revisited the Convent Gallery, a 10 minute walk from my home. In all fairness I hadn’t been there for many years so it’s nearly a new experience! And it did feel new. And very exciting. I hadn’t counted on the fact that on this grey mid -winter day I would leave the Convent Gallery feeling uplifted, inspired and renewed. What struck me as I started writing this piece is that this place holds so many layers of stories and people’s dreams. But let’s start with the background.
The Convent Gallery sits on Wombat Hill overlooking the township of Daylesford, in Central Victoria. It’s an extraordinary collection of buildings surrounded by sympathetic gardens and backing on to botanical gardens in this historic gold- rush town.
The Historical Story
Briefly,the historical story of this Gallery goes like this. In the gold-rush days of the 1860’s The Convent Gallery was the private home of the Gold Commissioner and it was called, Blarney Castle. The Catholic Church purchased the building and in 1891 Archbishop Carr of Melbourne proclaimed that it would be “a source of light and edification” for the people of Daylesford. The Convent became a girl’s boarding school run by the Presentation Sisters in 1892. The chapel was added in 1904 and in world war 2 families sent their girls to the convent in Daylesford for education and safety reasons. In 1973 the school closed and the buildings were used as a community centre. In 1988 Tina Banitska, a local artist, purchased the Holy Cross Convent and began the enormous tasks of restoration and rebuilding. It opened as a gallery in 1991 and has won numerous awards.
A Place of Stories
There are the historical stories of the nuns and their charges – the rostered baths, hours spent in chapel, shoe polishing and rote learning. The stories of young minds shaped. The nuns who dedicated their lives to belief and sacrifice.
But this is a gallery and event spaces now. As I wandered around the buildings the walls spoke of wedding stories and celebration. Families gathering and this place as a container of their cherished hopes and dreams of the life ahead.
The artwork tells stories of its own- the creative dream of its maker and the narrative within each piece. Hours spent shaping ideas, texture, colour and shape. The art work is varied and exciting and deserves an article in its own right…a story for another time.
But the biggest story I took away was the story of one woman’s vision and passion, resilience and leadership. A past student wrote ” In the late 80’s I heard the convent was for sale. I went back to see it. The care-taker let me in to see it. It was derelict. I cried and cried. There were mice and spider’s webs, it was dirty and it was so sad to see it like this. I wanted to buy it but I didn’t have the money.”
Tina Banitska did buy it and created the story of what this place could be. A Greek migrant, Tina trained as a teacher and artist. As a regional arts consultant she traveled to different parts of the state and saw the old convent in Daylesford. Years later and now living in the district, she saw the convent was for sale and bought it. Her dream of creating a significant cultural landmark is realised but never finished. The story of this visionary woman is another story to be told. Since 1988 she has traveled through setbacks, recession, leaking roofs and dereliction with vision and passion intact. It took a million dollars to bring the building to opening stage as a gallery in 1991.
She says, ” I didn’t think of the fears. I only thought of how I could make it work, its mental strength you need. You have to be desperate about what you want. It becomes a journey of oneself….many artists are like this. When you’re deeply involved in your work ideas flow and you grow beyond anything you could barely have imagined.”
As I wandered from one space to another, it was this passion story that energised and inspired me. In restoring and reimagining this building Tina Banitska has also restored and reenergised the imagination and dreams of so many people who walk through the doors of the Convent gallery. That is the biggest gift I walked away with and the most vivid story to be told.
A 4 – hour Adventure
Delicious coffee and cake at the Bad Habits cafe fueled my adventure. I felt like a school girl sneaking along narrow corridors that launch into light, bright gallery spaces. Staircases led me to the historical narrative of this intriguing place- the chapel, the music room. Take the time to sit in the chapel. Soak up the history and voices of the past. Take the time to really notice the ceilings, curated artefacts and the interaction of garden and indoor space. Peep through windows, notice the detail of tiles and furniture.
The events spaces are equally thoughtful and varied- wide terraces, a large light modern atrium for weddings and a beautiful integration of outdoor, indoor spaces and the garden. But it was the Altar Bar that said ” Nora…Create your story here……” With my 70th birthday fast approaching this was the space where i could see friends and family gathering and enjoying a spring lunch. What a wonderful warm, artsy fun space!
As with all adventures, you can never predict what the day will bring. As I wandered the gardens of the convent gallery I felt the luckiest person in the world – to have this inspirational place on my doorstep and the stories of such passionate and creative talent in my heart.