Painting a Brighter Future: Sue Tilley

Sue Tilley's The Drill Hall Studio is a source of revenue for more than 150 local artists and makers IMAGE: Sarah Joy Photography

Townsville's commercial (ie. privately run) galleries play a vital role in supporting the vibrancy of Townsville's artistic landscape. This is the first in a three-part interview series with some of the passionate gallery operators forging opportunities for local artists and makers

When Sue Tilley finished her Arts degree and went in search of her first opportunity to exhibit locally, she was disheartened to learn the waiting list was three-years long.

Sue said it seemed the bustling artistic landscape of bygone years had all but dried up, leaving her – and many like her – despondent about their artistic aspirations.

“In the ‘80s, there were lots of independent art galleries [in Townsville] and they all did really well,” said Sue.

“Gradually they faded away and for a period there was only really Perc Tucker, and then Pinnacles, Umbrella and Sylvia’s Gallery.

Inspired by a local proposal to replicate the Renew Newcastle model of using disused CBD spaces, Sue and a friend set up a small space on Flinders Street West, before taking the plunge and opening The Drill Hall Studio in 2015.

“When we opened there must have been a lot of interest because our opening was such that nobody could move in the courtyard or inside and there were people three-deep peering in the fence bars,” Sue recalled.

Since then The Drill Hall Studio has grown to stock the work of more than 150 local artists and creators, all from the greater Townsville region.

“That’s a lot of people quietly practicing in their home studio. You can’t help but wonder ‘Would they continue if they didn’t have an outlet?’”

Fortunately for those quietly practicing artists, handmade products are vogue once more, with many people developing or rediscovering an appreciation for one-of-a-kind pieces.

“When internet shopping first became a thing, everybody was terribly excited, but very quickly people realised you don’t always get what you think you’re going to get and there’s an awful lot of mass produced stuff out there,” Sue said. “And that has its place, but I think people are becoming – at least I hope they’re becoming – less consumer-driven and more selective. Rather than trying to get loads and loads of mass produced stuff, they’re going back to handmade things that are more sustainable and actually have bit more meaning.’

It’s great news for the local artists, and even better news for keen decorators who might, like Sue, prefer to justify their ‘extravagant’ art purchases with the trusty, old cost-per-use model.

“When picking art, you’ve got to find a piece that speaks to you,” said Sue. “If you walk into a gallery and look around, there might be a couple of things that draw you in and that you keep going back to. They’re the ones you should have; even if it’s a bit more expensive than you’d hoped.

“I’ve got a Peter Lawson painting that we bought almost 30 years ago and it was $800 – that was a lot of money then – but it has been in my loungeroom all these years and there’s never been a day that I don’t look at it and enjoy it. So to justify my extravagance, I worked out the per annum cost of owning it – $30 per annum, that’s only six cups of coffee.”

For Sue, one of the biggest barriers to encouraging more people to support our local artists is their fear of the unknown. Art galleries aren’t scary, intimidating places.

“We need to remind the public to pop in. Even if they don’t buy, while there’s interest there’s life. And you can enjoy a gallery without buying, although if you do come in, chances are you’ll be tempted in someway if not today, at some future point.”

The Drill Hall Studio is located at 27 Mitchell Street North Ward and is open & days.

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