Artists Yandell Walton and Lauren Dunn live in an art-filled warehouse in Collingwood with their two whippets, Sanchez and Desi. Emma McRae speaks with them about how Collingwood has changed over the years and how they managed to transform an empty warehouse space into a plant-filled sanctuary for a community of artists.
In 2009 Yandell Walton took a risk. After two years of hunting for the right place, she signed a ten–year lease on a warehouse in Collingwood and began the arduous process of transforming it — half into a home and studio for herself, and half into studios for artists to rent. The risk, and financial investment, paid off. Artists moved into the studios and Yandell’s home became a hub for a community of artists to work, socialise, share ideas and exchange art. Two years later, when Yandell’s partner Lauren Dunn moved in, further transformation took place. That unobtrusive warehouse in a gritty part of Collingwood became a plant–filled sanctuary from the chaos and competitiveness of the outside world. Ten years on, despite the challenges posed by gentrification, Lauren and Yandell continue to feel deeply embedded and connected within their community, and their studios have become rare gems for artists finding themselves pushed further and further from the city.
Visiting them on a sunny winter morning, I was greeted enthusiastically at the door by their two beautiful whippets, Sanchez and Desi. While the puppies calmed down and settled themselves on the sofa, Yandell and Lauren reminisced about the early days of what has been a ten–year labour of love.
When I first got the warehouse it was filthy. It had been a fashion warehouse, and it was leaking and disgusting. It was filled with metal shelving and there was stuff everywhere. I did everything to fix it up, including grinding back the concrete floor while my brother–in–law and friends were building studios next door. We ripped out the kitchen that was in the bedroom, put a kitchen in the main space, and put in a bathroom. I jackhammered up the floor for the plumber to run the pipes and did all the tiling. We tried to do everything very minimally, because it needed to meet our budget. The lights over the table are from my sister and brother–in–law. They had bought them for their own renovation and had two extras. They are so amazing! The lights really suit this place.
Straight away some of my best mates who are artists moved into the studios. Like Salote Tawale. Salote would just come into my kitchen and make herself a coffee, play some Singstar in the afternoon, have a beer out of the fridge. She was really funny. It was quite raw back in the day, before Lauren moved in and made it more homely.
It was like a nightclub when I moved in. That was eight years ago and we were both in our early 30s. There were a lot of queer parties going on back then. We had a lot of mutual friends. Everyone would always end up back here, partying. And there was this red vinyl couch. It was cool but you couldn’t even sit on it without sweating, the red vinyl and skin contact generated enormous body heat! After I moved in, I knew that the red couch and I couldn’t exist in the same space together, so we decided to raise money for a new couch. I organised a massive garage sale event in the carpark adjacent to the warehouse.
There were 25 stalls. I charged each stall holder a fee of $25 and we had our own stall selling years worth of clothes. We had a DJ playing loud, people were dancing in the streets, bikes were lined up all along the exterior wall of the studios, I was selling beers and vegan burgers made on our BBQ for cheap. It was super fun. I’m pretty sure the whole thing was illegal but we made enough money for the new couch and went to IKEA the next day and paid for it in cash.
YWMy studio is up the front and Lauren’s is next door, then we rent out eight studios to other artists. I do a lot of public art in the City of Yarra, and I’m heavily involved in the Gertrude Street Projection Festival. I’m on the board of the not–for–profit organisation, Centre for Projection Art, that runs the festival. Then there’s Bus gallery, Lon Gallery, Collingwood Art Precinct (CAP) is opening. There’s still a hub of arts organisations here, it’s just that the artists aren’t living here anymore. We’ve noticed that, when studios become available, we find it harder and harder to fill them — even though we haven’t put the rent for the studios up.
LDI’m in my studio every day. This year I’ve been doing a lot of research, writing, and made a new body of work titled Fruit and Veg and Parodies. My work is playful, but also has quite serious political undertones nestled behind the saturated colours and production. It’s all about me trying to understand our consumptive behaviours, and needing to know more about the environmental impact of consumptive trends. I was really interested in the hypnosis wheel for a long time. For me, hypnosis relates to how we’re behaving in a capitalist society. Hypnotised. I kept playing with the wheel to work out how I could manipulate it in some way, but I couldn’t’ get the wheel to work. I ended up making an A4 paper document in Illustrator with green and yellow stripes, printing it, then scrunching it up. I then took an image of the paper and enlarged it. The effect is a play on perception: the hypnosis wheel is pulled apart, reconfigured then distorted. This type of manipulation of the image is a consistent process for me. It allows me to play, but also speaks of the many forms of manipulation I believe we experience under capitalism.
YW Many of the other artworks we have here are from years ago, and are all works by friends. The salon hang is all works on paper from around 1998 that I’ve been given or swapped, or are personal prints that I’ve done. There are a lot of Jo Wilson works; she teaches printmaking and is an amazing artist. There’s a woodcut I got in London at an antique market, a print from Thailand that a friend bought, works by Renae Stevens, who is a really close friend, Danae Valencia, Deborah Klein, Emanuel Rodriguez Chaves, and by Alice Mrongovius as well. This wall is really quite sentimental to me. Gabriel Maher made this work for me — you can see the Y in it. They were doing collage works that were representational of the person and this has leather and a bit of bondage — I don’t know about that! And some pink lipstick. I did use to wear pink lipstick.
LDThese sculptures are by artist Adam Stone; his most recent work is an exceptionally clever play on material. Adam is the director and founder of LON, a commercial gallery in Easey St Collingwood, who also represent me as an artist.
We also have Simon Zoric’s shower curtain that I bought from a sale held on Instagram. He is definitely one of my favourite artists. We loved the idea of inexpensive accessibility, via Instagram, to his work and humour. It’s all a big gag that we were happy to take advantage of. Originally the work was a huge print, that I think now lives in a café in Brunswick. He also re-did the shower curtain for Spring 1883 in Sydney with LON Gallery this year.
YW I had some plants before Lauren moved in, but they were nearly dead. Lauren revived them and then we just bought more and more. I’m originally from Melbourne, but when I was eight we moved to Cairns. Coming from far north Queensland, to have plants around me is really important. Mum was in Cairns and Dad was in the Daintree rainforest, in that really heavy, beautiful nature. He was just living in the rainforest — with no walls, bathing in the creek, no toilet. Pretty full-on. But it meant that I had the best of both those worlds. A lot of these plants remind me of that environment, particularly the hanging ones.
Growing up in Cairns, I spent a lot of time in Kuranda, which is like the Matt Stanton photograph, Deep North, that Lauren purchased for my birthday. Kuranda is not as isolated as the Daintree rainforest, but just as thick. Matt’s photograph is an important work for me because it reminds me of home, but also how our environments are changing rapidly.
LDMatt’s work is documenting a landscape that’s changing because of mining, so it won’t look like that soon. I bought it for Yandie because it’s relevant on so many levels. It’s personal, because Matt and Yandie went to secondary school together. But it also touches on the themes of her work and the concerns we both have, as people in this world.
My hometown is Toowoomba in Queensland — inland, on a mountain. I moved to Melbourne when I was eight and grew up here. Growing up in Melbourne for me was better than Queensland, Melbourne is more conducive to the cultural and diverse lifestyle I crave. It’s always beautiful to return home to Toowomba, but I often find the ethics – in terms of diversity – to be a little outdated, and that makes me feel uncomfortable. Most of our friends are creative, artists and queers. I guess we’re just living a life we feel most comfortable in together.
YWWe’ll have been here for ten years in October. It’s really rare to find this sort of property now. We’re lucky because this place isn’t big enough and doesn’t feel like it’s in an exceptional spot to build apartments. It’s so nice to be in this area because of our community — our arts community, but also Victoria Park and the dog community, the Yarra River and Dights Falls. It’s like you are not in the city when you go there, but then we can walk to RMIT in 15 minutes.
When we talk about potentially leaving this area, it makes us just want to put our roots in and say, “No that’s not fair! You can’t just push artists out.” When I first moved here, ten years ago, I knew so many artists that lived in warehouses. Now I hardly know any. We’ve given so much to this community, both of us. Lauren has worked on rotary programs with Collingwood College, I’ve worked with the local parkies, and the Indigenous community, and then there’s the Gertrude Street Projection Festival. We have really strong networks within the community. It would be a shame if we had to move because of gentrification. But I suppose that’s the nature of the beast, and it will happen one day.
LD We know that we’re lucky to have the lifestyle we have, and always express our gratitude to each other, but we’ve also worked hard to create it. The most important thing for us is that we live and work here, that we’ve created this space together. We feel relaxed here; we make art here, and we cook for each other and our friends. These are our values. We’ve created a little world hidden away from the chaos of Collingwood, that we are happy to spend large amounts of time in, and that’s what we’re proud of.
A heartfelt thank you to Yandell and Lauren for opening up their home to us. And to their 2 adorable dogs – Sanchez and Desi for putting a smile on our face. Thanks too, to Tom Ross for his beautiful photographs.