Surfing the millstream in Lobethal

FabriK, an arts and heritage hub located in the former Onkaparinga Woollen Mill in Lobethal, has some stories to tell.

The Christmas lights at Lobethal shine brightly each year but in the early 1990s the prospects for this Hills community dimmed when the company operating the Onkaparinga Woollen Mill pulled the plug after years of fires, floods and tariff problems. Many jobs were lost at a site which had employed generations of locals and migrants since the Mill opened in 1872.

The physical legacy is the Mill’s industrial complex, which has significant associations with the Onkaparinga Woollen Company, an enterprise that gained an international reputation and made South Australia a leader in woollen exports. The enduring name and contemporary core business of the Onkaparinga bedding brand is the latest chapter in a long story that starts with Heinrich and Edward Kramm, two German brothers who migrated to Australia in 1869 and set up a weaving business with one carding machine, a horse-driven spinning mule of 30 spools and two hand looms. Soldiers of the Boer War and World Wars I and II went to war in Onkaparinga khaki. In the mid-20th century, proud brides-to-be draped themselves in Onkaparinga blankets, uttering the words, “Crown of the glory box … colour bright … comfort right.” Onkaparinga – it’s as (South) Aussie as a Colin Churchett checkside punt.

The Lobethal community became the owner of the Mill complex when the company closed down operations. The Onkaparinga Woollen Mill Museum is the custodian of a collection of machinery and other artefacts and photographs. But while the Mill, in its various guises, is central, it is not the complete story. The Indigenous (Peramangk) history is rich and complex and encompasses country running as far north as Angaston, Strathalbyn to the south and out to the Murray River. The struggle and enterprise of the first German settlers to the area, fleeing religious persecution in Prussia, is another. But how to keep these stories alive and embed them within the contemporary life of Lobethal and the wider South Australian community? A conventional social history museum has its limitations. A spark of creative energy was required. Enter FabriK.

FabriK is an arts and heritage hub, located in the former Onkaparinga Woollen Mill in Lobethal. The name came from extensive community consultation and the serendipitous connection of the German word for ‘factory’ and historical associations of the site with weaving and the fabric industry.

Adelaide Hills Council has taken the first step towards establishing the Hub at the former Lobethal Woollen Mill by dedicating funding to the first stage of the project. There is a business development framework, which proposes staged development. An Arts and Heritage Hub Director, Melinda Rankin, has been appointed.

Rankin comes to the position with extensive gallery and project experience as director of the Murray Bridge Regional Gallery and manager of the Hahndorf Academy. She has held leadership roles in the state’s regional gallery and museum sector. The experience Rankin values most in terms of steering FabriK’s evolution is building creative partnerships between artists and communities through such strategies as socially engaged artist residencies, participatory exhibitions and events.

From her perspective, the potential of the site, and its community contexts, is substantial and exciting. The experience of initiating and managing projects at Hahndorf, which interpreted social history through the agency of art, looks a good fit for the challenge of engaging local and wider communities. Right now, the immediate challenge is to convert selected areas into working spaces appropriate for such activities as workshops and exhibitions. Artist-led community workshop programming will be a likely first step in putting the site to work and encouraging the local community to get on board. The Lobethal-based art group Hills Art (h.ART) will continue to play a significant role in keeping art front and centre and stimulating local involvement in artist-led projects.

Previous experience has taught Rankin the value of artists being embedded within a community through workshops, residencies, public art projects and the like as a powerful way to build relationships and trust. This will be an important factor in encouraging former Mill workers to tell their stories through the agency of art. She is familiar with the creative journeys of other like projects such as Deveron Projects, based in the small market town of Huntly in the north east of Scotland (population 4500). Since 1995, Deveron Projects (formerly known as Deveron Arts) has worked with local residents to create socially engaged projects that connect artists, communities and places. It lays claim to being a contemporary arts organisation with a difference – its venue is an entire town – acting as studio, gallery and stage for artists of all disciplines invited from around the world to live and work there.

Rankin’s aspirations are clear cut. Yes, the site has a twin responsibility to tell the Lobethal (and particularly the Mill) story and be enterprising in terms of attracting wider audiences with related spinoffs related to tourism and marketing. But her artistic vision is at the heartland of planning – to promote “engaged practice (with a strong contemporary art focus) which is embedded in the community. I have always been interested in the point where contemporary art meets community – and how you do that – from the very beginning.”

Exciting times for Lobethal. Watch this space.

Lobethal Woollen Mill site.
FabriK Arts & Heritage
Building 20, Lobethal Woollen Mill
ahc.sa.gov.au/ahc-visitor/Pages/Fabrik.aspx

 

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