If These Walls Could Talk

Shelley Thomas discovers the true art of travel on a trip to the buzzing river city of Mackay – from its art-deco skyline to an eclectic artisans' quarter, sprouted from an historic wharf building where the city first began. 

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
- Pablo Picasso

“This old girl could tell some stories,” says Margaret Burgess, her face creasing into a comfortable, laconic smile, as wide as the river that laps at her door. A shabby chic door, but authentically so; itself a piece of art, in keeping with each perfectly-weathered board and gritty piece of metal sheeting nailed to the building.

Above it hangs a sign that reads “Paxton's Creative Space” and below, flows Mackay's Pioneer River, the confidante of a swag-load of stories, dreams and, no doubt, countless secrets.

A river that carried the first travellers to Mackay – pioneers who arrived by boat more than 100 years ago, to build a city on its shores. And here, as Margaret is quick to point out, each and every one of them passed through the doors of WH Paxton & Co. Offices and Warehouse.

Today, “the old girl” is her office of sorts.

Home to an art space that smacks of an edgy, eclectic vibe, more common to artisan quarters of London or New York, but with an “open-door”, laid-back charm exclusive to Queensland. A space fast becoming a “must-see” destination for tourists to explore and connect with Mackay's “cultural community”.

“Oh boy, if these walls could talk…,” continues Margaret of the heritage-listed building. Constructed in 1899, it now hosts regular art classes and workshops; a gallery space; children's learning zone; and, thanks to the aptly entitled “Out Of The Box Shop”, gobsmackingly good works by 18 local artisans.

“She's a gorgeous old building, and a lot of people come to see her as part of the city's heritage walk. I always have a couple of crab pots hanging over the side, which visitors love to pull up, and, if they're interested, I tell them some of the amazing stories about the history of the building.”

As Margaret talks, the old warehouse practically creaks and coughs on its timber wharf pilings, as if trying to get a word in. Walking through the shabby chic door, we step over not just cracks, but perfectly circular holes in the wooden floorboards.

“See these holes,” she says, pointing to a neat line of golf ball-sized openings, within footsteps of a more haphazard smattering, including a few covered up for safety.

“I always ask tourists when they come in, 'What do you think these holes are for?'. Most people say fishing, and I say, 'If you caught a fish, how are you going to get it back up?'.”

Margaret flashes a smile: “They're not for fishing, you see. Those holes were made by people who liked drinking rum, which used to be stored here. They'd come under the building in their boats, drill holes up through the floorboards with an old bit brace, drink all the rum out of the barrels… and go away very happy.

Paxton's, as it is affectionately called by locals, is one of the few surviving warehouses built on timber wharves in Queensland's former river ports. The building stands proudly at No 10 River Street, Mackay; stubborn in the face of a litany of tropical cyclones and, until recently, a period of neglect.

Indeed, before Margaret signed the lease and opened Paxton's Creative Space and The Upstairs Gallery, in 2012, it had become something of a dumping ground for rubbish and discarded wares.

Born and bred in Mackay, Margaret's arguably hewn from the same tough fibre as the building itself.

A creative soul, but endearingly no-nonsense and steadfast in her vision of breathing new life into the river city via meaningful art and culture.

It's a Wednesday at Paxton's Creative Space and I'm cutting my teeth on a general art class. My canvass looms white and large as Margaret introduces a “composition exercise”. It starts out with something simple: envisaging a picnic basket on a blanket, but on the passage through my imagination it ends up as a horizontal view between two large feet and brightly painted toes.

“That's great,” says Margaret, who helps me create a sense of depth in the basket, but clearly likes the toes. “I think you should stick with that,” she adds with a smile as others in the class move on to a kaleidoscope of canvasses at different stages of “creation”.

Amber, whose husband is a local fisherman, has chosen to focus on clusters of vintage light bulbs that hang from the exposed timber beams above. Andrea, who emigrated to Mackay from Peterborough, England, two years ago, is using charcoal to sketch out a perfectly-bottomed nude. Lorraine has chosen a fantasy world of fairies. For Renee, it's a case of art imitating life as she meticulously paints her wide-eyed daughter, while Paula seems lost in thought before a vision of blues.

The women come from different generations, life experience and culture. It's a healing space, they say almost in unison of Margaret's classes in an historic building that inspires creativity and a personal journey of discovery that goes hand-in-hand with art.

“It's great that people really want to be involved and I think it's because when you go to a community, and you want a true picture, you go and check out the local art and artisans,” says Margaret.

Her own work has also drawn accolades and awards. The beauty of her paintings resounds in their quintessentially Australian subject matter, mixed with a good dab of irreverence. The Aussie backyard, with its Hills Hoist, chicken coop and “out house”, is a key theme, reflecting the Mackay that

Margaret grew up in – a child of the 60s and 70s, and the sixth of 11 children.

Back in the Creative Space, the next class of the day is about to commence – a life drawing session – when Margaret beckons me to a wall of picture windows, minus the glass, that offer an uninterrupted view of Pioneer River. She's pulled up a crab pot and it's struggling to contain a large male sand crab.

“Do you like crab?” she asks. “I think I'll make chilli crab.” And she does, loaded with lemon grass, coconut and coriander.

As the kettle boils, the life drawing session gets underway and a new neighbour, Carmel Porter, takes a seat at the easel next to mine. She has an interesting story to tell. 

Her husband's great grandfather, Charles Porter, constructed part of the two-storey warehouse to accommodate shipping offices and a wholesaling enterprise for Mackay-based mercantile company WH Paxton & Co. A firm that traded in goods as diverse as plantation rice, flour, teas, maize, hessian bags, coal, tobacco, golden syrup, sugar and, of course, rum, until its closure in 1975.

“My great grandfather-in-law came to Mackay from Scotland at a time when everything – people included – had to be brought up the river by boat because there were no roads,” says Carmel.

A glance at the history books shows Mackay was declared a point of entry and clearance in February 1863, following the opening of the Pioneer River district to pastoral settlement in 1862. Back then, ships would anchor off Flat Top Island, at the mouth of the river, to unload cargo and passengers. Smaller boats then set off from Paxton's to ferry everything in.

Carmel reckons Charles Porter would be “stoked” to know that Paxton's building is still standing. Her husband, a fifth generation Porter, carries on the family tradition, running a well-established building supplies and hardware business of the same name.

The sign, Porters, can be seen a few streets back from Paxton's and across the road from one of Mackay's newest landmarks – Quest Mackay on Gordon, opened in September 2013.

Also within walking distance, is Sandfly Creek Environmental Reserve, often overlooked by visitors in the rush to fuel up for day-trips to Cape Hillsborough and Eungella national parks – two of nature's wonderlands, less than an hour's drive from Mackay, best explored over two to three days.

I was lucky enough to plan my visit around a fortuitous Friday. Every six weeks, on a Friday, Paxton's Night Markets come to life. Margaret fills the space with 54 stall holders, offering something for everyone: art lovers, foodies and music aficionados.  

On this occasion, visitors are also treated to a sneak peek at an orphaned joey. Tiny and hairless, he accompanies one of the market stallholders from the Whitsunday region, needing to be fed every few hours.

At the next stall, my attention is captured by a print entitled “The Pod”. It mirrors the installation at Sandfly Creek Reserve and bears the “Made in Mackay” stamp of one of Margaret's “Out Of The Box Shop” artists, May-Britt Mosshammer.

It's the one thing (aside from laughter and memories) that I pack in my bag for the journey home. To me, it's a piece of art that, as Pablo Picasso best put it, “washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life”;  a reminder of my adventure into the very heart and soul of Mackay.

Check out Mackay's creative hub for yourself:

Plus, don't miss Artspace Mackay: http://www.artspacemackay.com.au/

Home away from home: Quest Mackay on Gordon's serviced apartments cater to all needs, whether business trips or family vacations, with ocean and river views and a swimming pool with portholes overlooking Mackay's art deco skyline:  www.questapartments.com.au

Word Count: 1578
Author: Shelley Thomas

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