SHE may be Lake Macquarie's long-time gallery director, but as Debbie Abraham stands in the reconfigured foyer of the newly named Museum of Art and Culture, giving instructions to tradies, she seems more like a project manager.
"There's a lot of high-vis around. They're the marquee guys, and I think we've got the plumbing guys in there," she says energetically, pointing to a group of workers.
"So really this is just an art gallery version of The Block?," I ask.
"Pretty much at the moment!"
Just as it is on the reality TV show, where contestants scramble to finish their renovations and rebuilds before the grand reveal, so it has been for the teams working on the lake's art gallery project.
For the past eight months or so, the gallery on the headland overlooking the lake at Booragul has been closed to the public, as the building has undergone a $2.3 million redevelopment.
The extensions and changes are a refresh for a building that was opened as Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery in 2001.
"We're still keeping that lakeside, light feel about the building," Abraham explains. "When we first built it, we called it our big boatshed."
"What do you call it now?"
"A bigger boatshed!," she replies.
The public eye can gaze on the reimagined gallery from today, with a weekend of festivities planned, after the official opening on Friday night.
"People will know we're the same space, but they'll see a whole lot of new things as well," Abraham says.
Some changes are obvious before you walk through the gallery's front door.
For one thing, the placement of the gallery's front door has been changed. The entrance is no longer up a ramp around the side of the building but through a door that leads straight into the central area.
"It's just a really great way to enter it," Abraham says as she guides me around the redeveloped gallery. "You're literally right in the middle, right in the heart."
To the left, where there used to be an office, is a small lounge area that has windows looking out onto the lake.
This area doubles as an exhibiting space for local artists, which has been called "Art in Your Community".
Straight ahead, past the gallery's shop, is a new addition, a large covered terrace, which can be used for everything from art education sessions to a venue for having a drink. There is art to be seen from here, with works in the gallery's sculpture garden, but what fixes the eyes is the view across the water towards Warners Bay.
"Look at that!," exclaims Abraham, as we walk onto the terrace.
"It doesn't matter how many times a day I come out here, I go, 'Wow!'. It's just beautiful. It says everything about our location."
More about this location is said inside. The walls speak, holding the gamut of human emotions expressed in paintings, along with installations on the floor and hanging from the ceiling, in the expanded exhibition area.
Abraham says there is about 100 square metres of additional floor space, so that effectively offers another exhibition area. As a result, the gallery can hold three exhibitions concurrently, whereas in the past there tended to be two.
"Sometimes we'd squash three in, but they'd be smaller ones," Abraham says.
To show off the new space, MAC is holding three exhibitions: "us"; "we"; and; "be".
"Us", universal stories, features the work of contemporary artists from near, such as Lottie Consalvo, and further afield, including Berlin-based Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota.
"These works talk to everybody," says the curator of the "us" exhibition, Meryl Ryan.
"My whole aim in curating this show was to go across generations, across gender, across race, across place, across all kinds of aspects of the human condition and relate to everyone."
Neighbouring "us" is "we", wiyelliko, which is an Awabakal word for "speak". As Donna Biles-Fernando, the exhibition's curator, has written in the catalogue, Awabakal is "the language of the land on which the museum sits".
The "us" exhibition has contemporary Aboriginal artists responding to their environment.
Among the exhibiting artists is Jasmine Miikika Craciun. The Malyangapa and Barkindji woman has honoured her family's home areas around Wilcannia and Broken Hill with an installation titled Empty Water Vessels.
The work is shaped like fish traps, and it tells a story of the declining health of the Darling River. At the bottom of the work dangles the steel skeletons of fish.
"That's representative of the major fish kills at the moment, because the river's so stagnant," Craciun explains.
"And I guess it touches on the ecosystem that we're beginning to lose."
The installation is also studded with porcelain shards, which is a tribute to the artist's grandmother and her childhood by the river.
"Instead of trading cards, they would trade coloured pieces of china they would find in the riverbank," Craciun says, who is delighted that her work is part of the reopening exhibition.
"It's very special, because I feel like it's showing on a bigger scale something that is close to my heart, and to my family's heart, and, I guess, bringing it to light in a beautiful space where there are a lot of stories within all these works around us."
In the next space is "be", (your collection) be remembered. This exhibition not only showcases some extraordinary Australian art but also makes a statement about the beauty of benefaction and generosity. For the works are from two bequests.
The Ruth Spenser Komon Bequest features a collection of works by Lake Macquarie's best known painter and arguably Australia's greatest portraitist, William Dobell.
The works range from landscapes to a ghostly and gestural self-portrait that Dobell painted just before he died in 1970 at Wangi Wangi.
"You get these different perspectives on Dobell," notes exhibition curator, Damian Smith.
"For a small group of pictures, it gives you a snapshot of Dobell's career, and it's actually very insightful."
The second group of works in the exhibition is from the Shirley Firkin Bequest.
This collection of post-war Australian art was given by Shirley Firkin's husband, Caleb, a Lake Macquarie doctor and former president of the gallery's society, and their son, Paul.
As Paul Firkin recounted to me for the exhibition catalogue's essay, he was talking with his father about the future of the family's art collection, all the while wondering, "What am I going to do with 150 art works? The best thing would be to donate the bulk of it."
And that's what happened.
Caleb Firkin, who died in 2018, was keen to make the bequest in memory of his late wife.
Yet the bequest also represented a homecoming of sorts for the works. Caleb's grandfather, the well-known lawyer Thomas Braye, built Awaba House, the elegant Art Deco-influenced building neighbouring MAC, and which served as the city's art gallery for about five years until the end of 2000.
But history went up in flames in August, when Awaba House was gutted by fire.
"Oh, it's sad, it's very sad," says Abraham.
"It was an amazing historical landmark, and we still don't know what's going to happen. Council is working hard to figure out how we can save bits of it."
That disaster meant some quick changes to the gallery's redevelopment. With the restaurant in Awaba House lost, the gallery will now host a cafe.
The burnt shell of Awaba House has also been creatively cloaked; hoardings have been erected and decorated with works by commissioned artists.
"We've seen it as an opportunity to employ artists, celebrate the gallery, and make [the hoardings] look a bit nicer," says Joshua White, the council's urban and public art project leader.
Debbie Abraham still remembers when the gallery was housed in the old council chambers at Speers Point. Now the latest incarnation of the city's home for art is almost ready.
"It's so amazing to see it grow from a very small, community-based gallery ... to this building," she says.
By this weekend, the high-visibility vests will be replaced by the colour and vigour of the art, and the soundtrack of power drills and saws will give way to the voices of crowds rolling into what Debbie Abraham says is "everyone's" place.
"It's a really important community facility," she says.
"The arts are the soul of a community.
"There's the nuts and bolts, the roads, and all that stuff that's super important to us on a day-to-day basis, but there's also that sense of, 'Where do we breathe? Where do we learn? Where do we understand each other?'. And it's often [answered] through art."