THE massive body of water that defines and unites the City of Lake Macquarie plays so many roles for so many people. The lake is expected to be everything from a playground to an industrial asset.
But Jacqui Hemsley sees it as something else again.
“I think it’s a stage,” she says.
As we eat toasties in the courtyard of Brennans Coffee at Warners Bay, the lake is out of sight. But it’s rarely out of the mind of Jacqui Hemsley.
As Lake Macquarie City Council’s cultural services manager, she is constantly thinking about how that “stage” can attract a bigger and wider audience. Indeed, she has brought lights to the stage.
Hemsley was instrumental in introducing “Float Your Boat” to the lake last year. The event combines the area’s sailing culture with everyone’s love of a light show. A flotilla festooned with lights glides along the shores over two nights in winter.
More than being a pretty spectacle on the water, “Float Your Boat” was seen by Hemsley as a way to encourage people to consider a key question for the city and its future: “How can we create that energy to start the conversation about developing culture, developing opportunities, developing innovation and creative industries?”
Hemsley has also been a prime mover of the recently unveiled Creative Lake art trail, including a cluster of sculptures along the Warners Bay shoreline.
The trail is designed to attract visitors to the waterfront, and to provoke more conversations about the value of culture in a city better known for its laid-back lifestyle.
“To me, culture is everything,” Hemsley offers. “I apply culture in everything we do. For me, in what I do, it’s the essence of why I do things, why we have our team, and why we’re developing that identity for our city.
“It’s how we communicate as a community, it’s how we acknowledge and context our past, it’s how we celebrate, it’s how we express ourselves. Culture is extremely, fundamentally important to humans.”
JACQUI Hemsley was born in 1971 in a part of Queensland renowned for its rather unique culture: the Gold Coast.
Young Jacqui sought to find something cultural beyond the Glitter Strip. She attended art classes. She also volunteered at Gold Coast City Art Gallery.
“That’s where I got the interest in galleries, contemporary arts and Aboriginal culture,” she says. “Otherwise on the Gold Coast, where are you going to learn about any of that?”
It was at the gallery, when she was in her late teens, that Hemsley saw the works of Chinese artist Guan Wei, who had just arrived in Australia. She was deeply moved by his paintings, and her desire to work in the arts was galvanised.
There is a certain symmetry, then, that the artist who inspired the teenage Jacqui Hemsley is part of the lake art trail she helped to create. Guan Wei’s bronze sculpture, No.1 Sky Pig, takes flight on a plinth by North Creek.
I ask Hemsley has she told the artist what effect his work had on her life.
“Oh, no, I’d be too shy!,” she replies. “No. I should, shouldn’t I? I get a bit starstruck. Because they’re superstars, they’re amazing. They reference contemporary culture and they’re geniuses.”
Jacqui Hemsley realised early on she was not going to be an artist. While attending art lessons, Hemsley concluded she was not very good at creating it.
“So if you’re a pretty crap artist but you want to be around arts, what are you going to do?,” she asks.
“That’s when I realised I want to be in this industry. I want to be around exciting, creative people. ‘I’m never going to make it, I don’t have what it takes to do that. But I can definitely help’.”
What form that help would take was slowly revealed. Hemsley wanted to study anthropology at university, but her father persuaded her to enrol in a business course.
“He said, ‘You won’t get a job out of that’,” Hemsley recalls. “He said, ‘I’ll give you a car if you don’t do that’. I took the car!”
It was an old yellow station wagon, which fitted her surfboard – “I surfed badly” – and allowed her to travel to uni and part-time jobs at the Gold Coast’s international hotels.
Yet the car wasn’t enough to keep her on the Gold Coast. Hemsley took a couple of years off, living in England and travelling around Europe, having a good time, before returning to the Gold Coast to finish her business degree, cut back on partying, and work towards a career in the arts.
“There must have been a responsible little flick in the back of my head that said, ‘Come on, if you stay like this, you’re not going to be able to do what you want to do, or follow what you want to do. Get out and sort yourself out’.”
Hemsley graduated and headed north to work as an assistant director at Noosa Regional Gallery. But she was keen to leave Queensland, not only for her career’s sake.
As a young gay woman, she felt this was not the state to be in, as she frequently confronted prejudice.
Jacqui Hemsley headed to Victoria, working as the coordinator of the Dandenong Community Arts Centre, in an ethnically diverse, economically struggling, but creatively fascinating area: “I loved it, I loved the variety.”
She commuted from inner Melbourne, where she found support in a strong gay community: “That was something I never got on the Gold Coast. We were very much isolated in that sense.”
Having completed a post-graduate degree in arts management while in Melbourne, Hemsley headed north-west in 2000 to be the director of the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery. It didn’t start well.
“I cried every day for about two months,” she says. “I really wanted to pack it in. I was so frightened. It got better!”
From redeveloping the gallery to meetings with local art icon Pro Hart to learn the rules and rhythms of life in the mining city, Hemsley ended up spending more than four years in Broken Hill.
While there, after crashing the Mayor’s car, Hemsley discovered she had an eye condition, retinitis pigmentosa. She was gradually losing her sight.
“Now I just have to learn coping skills,” she says matter-of-factly, explaining she no longer drives, doesn’t go to the cinema, and can’t go out at night.
But Jacqui Hemsley didn’t allow the disorder to stop her helping others share their artistic vision, particularly in regional and more remote areas.
After Broken Hill, she journeyed to the bottom of New Zealand, working at the Southland Museum and Art Gallery in Invercargill.
She then headed back over the Tasman to Victoria’s Gippsland, to be director of the Latrobe Regional Gallery, before taking up a cultural manager’s position in Albury. She was also the inaugural director of the river city’s Murray Art Museum Albury.
“Where ever you go, it’s almost like being on assignment,” she explains. “You get to meet the most incredible people, you get to be immersed in creativity, you get to learn new collections, learn new history.”
With all that experience and her education, Jacqui Hemsley could have headed to a state gallery.
“That’s what my father says,” Hemsley groans.
So why does she stay in regional arts roles?
“I’ve asked that question quite a lot,” she replies. “Probably because you can put your finger in so many different things. If you work in a big institution, you’re in a silo, you work in that bit, and that’s it.”
Towards the end of 2016, Hemsley decided to move again, to Lake Macquarie.
One reason for heading north was family-related. She and her partner, Jo, a jeweller and teacher, have an eight-year-old son, and they liked the look of the lifestyle by the lake. They live at Eleebana.
But Hemsley also relished the challenge of developing the cultural landscape in a city that is fast changing. When she arrived at the lake, “it did feel like there are some things we can do here.”
While some gifted artists have come from the lake, the area isn’t exactly renowned as a cultural destination. There is a city art gallery but, as Hemsley points out, there’s no museum of Lake Macquarie and no major performing arts centre. So is she swimming against the cultural current here?
“There are some people in the community who feel that way, but the question would be, ‘Do their children?’. Or is it a legacy thing? Is it something they were told, ‘That’s just the way Lake Mac is’? There are many people moving into Lake Macquarie who bring different values and different expectations, and the place is changing.”
Hemsley is aware that “culture” is still a word that raises suspicion, even derision, among some ratepayers and even a few council colleagues.
But she takes a glass half-full view of her role: “A manager of roads can’t say, ‘We’re being creative about the application of that road’. I can be as flexible as I like.”
“Our sheer existence is to create an environment and a community that values and respects creativity.
Lake Mac has that opportunity to be a great place to bring up your family and be creative.”
After all, there’s that big water “stage”, just waiting for great ideas to be floated on it. And Jacqui Hemsley is waiting to see what surfaces around Lake Macquarie.
“There are much more creative people out there than me,” she says.
“Can we choreograph a jet ski opera? Can we have an underwater art gallery?
“It’s completely open to people’s ideas, and I’m just waiting to hear them.”