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Byron Shire
September 23, 2021

New gallery and studio breathes life into old church and graveyard

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Was it divine intervention or western democracy that changed the fate of a former country church on the Northern Rivers last week?

‘I didn’t realise we had elections in Ballina Shire,’ Echo reader Peter Hatfield commented recently, ‘I thought David Wright was divinely appointed for life, if not beyond’.

David Wright has been mayor of Ballina Shire for the past eleven years and has held a seat on the council for the past seventeen so it’s fair to say his time has been epic in local government terms.

But Mr Hatfield’s joke could also be a subtle reference to the councillor’s famous – at least locally – flamboyancy.

With his wild white hair, half-buttoned attire and plain-speaking style, could Cr Wright’s charisma be of the divine sort?

Whether by divinity or democracy, the Ballina Shire Council voted unanimously, despite protestations from a macadamia farmer next door to the old Rous Mill Church, to have the building converted into an art and pottery studio.

The Rous Mill Church was built in 1903 and used as a church from 1904 until 2017. PIC supplied

No place like your own studio

Owning his own studio has been a long-held ambition of Northern Rivers based artist Ray Cavill, so much so that he tried to buy one before trying to buy his first home.

‘The bank suggested I find somewhere to live first,’ Mr Cavill joked in his presentation to the Ballina Shire Council last week.

The artist, who says he’s been working with clay since he was three, had been working on plans to convert the old Rous Mill Church into a studio and gallery for the past three years.

He said he’d addressed concerns raised by the macadamia farmer next door and deleted plans for an artist-in-residence abode due to community concerns he was planning an Air B’n’B property.

Two years had been spent working out suitable accessibility designs, Mr Cavill said.

The artist said he loved Queenslanders and had ‘respect and appreciation’ for old, particularly wooden buildings and had engaged local architect Marguerite Pollard for the Rous Mill Church project.

‘Marguerite Pollard grew up cycling past this church and has returned to the region after studying and working in heritage in Brisbane and Scotland,’ Mr Cavill said, ‘Marguerite has come up with a sensitive and nuanced design’.

Council staff support church gallery DA

Aerial view of the Old Rous Mill Church site.

Macadamia farmer Scott Lesley, who owned an expansive orchard next door to the old church, said the project, in particular a planned water tank, was too close to his property.

Mr Lesley also opposed the council allowing an income-generating business in a rural zoned area, noting the studio was to be open five days per week.

But council staff had already recommended councillors approve Mr Cavill’s development application, saying it was ‘complementary’ to surrounding development, including a community hall.

Old graveyard addressed to ‘highest level’, staff say

The council’s agenda last week included detailed plans for the Rous Mill Church project, along with a description and history from council staff.

Staff said the former church building was of Gothic style, built of timber with a galvanised iron roof in 1903 and used as a church from 1904 until four years ago.

The site was also a former burial ground, staff said, from around 1880 until 1888.

The headstone of Donald Kennedy was there, staff said, and two suspected unmarked child burials.

‘Importantly’, staff said, ‘the applicant also arranged for the preparation of an Archaeological Protocol which identifies the steps necessary in the event any human remains or other archaeological items are found during works’.

Staff said Mr Cavill’s Archaeological Protocol was supported by Heritage NSW, subject to additional conditions.

‘It is considered that this matterhas been addressed to the highest level possible at this stage in the process,’ staff said.

‘No reason’ why gallery and farm can’t live ‘side by side’, says artist

The Old Rous Mill Church was built in 1903 and used as a church from 1904 until 2017. PIC supplied.

Reference was made to Mayor David Wright and his ‘divine appointment’ earlier but it was independent councillor Jeff Johnson who moved for the Rous Mill Church project to go ahead, saying it would bring the building back into life.

‘If a use for the church building isn’t found it is likely to fall into disrepair and eventually be demolished,’ Cr Johnson told The Echo later, ‘the proponent of the new gallery and pottery studios is well respected and has been teaching pottery for over twenty years’.

‘With the Rous Mill Hall across the road this is a wonderful outcome for the Rous community and the broader arts community,’ Cr Johnson said.

Mr Cavill had earlier said his proposal for an educational studio and gallery was a way to preserve the church and ‘extend the history of use in a sustainable, responsible, non-invasive and sympathetic way’.

‘This region is renowned for its creative industries, especially in clay,’ Mr Cavill had told the Ballina Shire Council, ‘as well as its rich agricultural history’.

‘I see no reason why they cannot continue to succeed side by side,’ Mr Cavill said.

Rous to receive new gallery and pottery classes

Plans for the art gallery showed it was to be used to present Mr Cavill’s artwork as well as that of other artists.

‘It is expected that the gallery will include a permanent display of the historical aspects of the church and permanent collection of Northern Rivers ceramic artists,’ staff notes said.

‘Four to eight specialised exhibitions are expected in the art gallery per year,’ the notes continued, showing each exhibition was allowed to last up to two weeks and expected to attract an average of ten people per day.

A potter’s studio was also approved as part of the project, which Mr Cavill said he intended to use for himself five days per week and for classes three days each week.

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