Making art is changing lives at the Creative Community Studios in Eaglehawk.

By Lauren Mitchell – Photography by AJ Taylor

Bendigo Magazine visits the Creative Community Studios the day the imminent second lockdown is announced, so suffice to say, outside in the world, the mood is low. But this visit proves the perfect antidote, for within the Eaglehawk Baptist Church walls, the music is pumping and lunch is served, along with a generous helping of light, love and laughter.
This is the vibe Melissa Currie had dreamed of. “Isn’t it nice,” she says. “I’ve worked hard for this.”
Melissa is the studio’s creative director. She’s worked in disability support for the past 10 years, and all her experience with the community has shown her the need and potential for a place such as this; an all-abilities art studio that fosters people’s innate talents, and assists them to bloom, which in turns brings growth, confidence and development in many other aspects of life.
While Melissa directs the supports and the overall creative vision, she is assisted by the program’s creative coordinator, Sebastian Ratcliffe. An alumnus of La Trobe University in Bendigo, Sebastian studied Visual Arts and Graphic Design, the accumulated knowledge from which he is able to proactively use in the program. “It’s great to be able to properly use my creative studies in a professional way, even indirectly,” he says.
Creative Community Studios is a community-focused disability support program headed by Complex Behaviour Change in Castlemaine. The overall creative vision Melissa has is “a person-centred, holistic approach to assisting individuals with NDIS funding to personally, socially, and creatively grow”.
Melissa says when studio members share their unique talents and gifts, the dignity, uniqueness and freedom of each individual is honoured, allowing their goals to flourish. The studio not only teaches and promotes art for health and wellbeing, it supports the artists to sell and exhibit their work.
“I passionately believe people need to be together, to connect and grow and develop creatively,” she says of this program of art, as well as fitness, dancing, capacity building in the home, gardening, connecting with nature and animals, and woodworking. “My idea was to create a professional studio in this region, and to employ staff passionate about art, music, dance and gardening.”
Melissa herself has a diploma in art therapy and is an artist. “Art gives me peace and freedom and connectedness. It’s what’s given me the inspiration to do what I do with people. To help others find that spark and develop that.”
She says the studio is now nurturing many people who were otherwise isolated at home. One of those is Wayne Jackson, who on the morning we visit is working on a portrait of himself and his wife. He’s also just finished a piece for the Inclusive Arts Network Exhibition in Geelong, called Monkey at Play.
The October exhibition will also feature the work of fellow studio artists Michelle Loschiavo, Matthew Considine, Patrick Mawson and Corey Borg.
“It feels pretty good actually,” Wayne says on his achievement. “It gives me inspiration and a creative feeling.”
Wayne says now the studio is part of his life, he thinks about it when he’s not here, planning and dreaming of what he’ll paint next. He says before he met the studio’s lead art facilitator, Alicia Luvara, he’d never even picked up a paintbrush, and now he’s completed at least 100 works.
“The first time Wayne came he was so hesitant, but his confidence is incredible now,” Alicia says. “He’s got his own style going on, he chooses his own colours and brings in his own reference material. I’m just company for him now, he doesn’t need much guidance. For someone who didn’t think they could draw or paint, he’s thriving.
“Wayne’s not really meant to be here today, that’s how much he loves it. He’s made so many friends here and is such a social, generous person, he’s always telling us how much he loves coming.”
Alicia, who is also a practising artist and a mental health nurse, says she loves it, too. “It’s like my dream job; getting to support people and being creative as well. As an artist it’s so inspiring for my own practice, because they’re so free. They appreciate what you do for them, and they tell you. Just to see the growth in them is so rewarding.”
The studio has also developed strong ties with the L’Arche community in Bendigo, hinting at a promising future of collaboration.
Follow the studio members, their work and achievements, via the Creative Community Studios Facebook page.