The art of connecting

When Jenni Nichols decided to convert her former restaurant into an art gallery, she created a space that was about far more than just showcasing creative works.

Jenni Nichols admits that establishing the Hunter Artisan Gallery probably saved her life. After spiralling into a “dark place” following an intense 12 months of personal tragedy, the former town planner used her rekindled passion for art to turn her life around. She converted her historic East Maitland building, once home to Maitland’s renowned fine dining restaurant the Old George and Dragon, into a fabulous new art gallery and café.

The space was designed to give up and- coming local artists (herself included) a place to showcase and share their works, regardless of their style or medium. In the process it became a safe, supportive space, not just for Jenni, but for countless others as well.

“It’s a very healing place and a lot of people come in just to have a chat because they feel very safe here. I’ve always said to people, it’s like coming to Mumma Jen’s home, it’s not this big hustle, bustle gallery. “People even say the words, ‘I come here because it’s a safe place’. This saved my life and I know that it has done that for a lot of people as well. I always say that no-one ever walks through that door without a reason,” Jenni said.

For many people, that reason is to appreciate what is a truly diverse collection of artworks, from traditional water colours, moody oil paintings and mixed media projects to eclectic sculptures, handmade giftware and artworks with darker themes. “My goal was always to be diverse and to try and support anyone who was pursuing their creative career, their creative passion, regardless of what genre they chose, regardless of what medium they chose, regardless of who they were.

“I try very hard to make sure that I have the traditional water colour flowers, but then I do have stuff that’s a little more edgy and a bit weird because not everyone that comes in is going to want a pretty water colour flower for their home. A piece that I sold of mine the other day was just a drawing of a ballet slipper … I had this dream of being a ballerina when I was a little girl, and it was unfulfilled, the closest I got was doing belly dancing as an adult, but the girl who bought it had always wanted to do ballet and never did it, it was her dream as well so it was something that really resonated with her.”

Describing her gallery as an “artisan collective”, it has grown in the past two years to house an ever-changing array of up to 160 works, created by more than 30 independent, local makers. The gallery itself has also grown beyond being a space to view and buy art, offering regular workshops, art classes and creative gatherings designed to encourage more people to form connections and explore their artistic sides.

“I think people are looking and searching for something for themselves, to give their own lives meaning,” Jenni said. So on the days when the gallery is closed there are workshops, which Jenni thinks are fulfilling a niche in the community for people wanting to explore their creative side among like-minded others in a safe and inclusive space. A range of regular, occasional and one-off workshops and events are on offer this year, from the weekly Sketchers’ Salon life drawing sessions, to the four-week ARTstART course that will introduce beginners to a range of skills, techniques and mediums.

There are also workshops covering areas such as fabric printing, mixed media, lino cut printing and fabric dying, while a new Your Professional Practice session will guide artists through the basics of how to present their work and market themselves beyond the studio.

The Hunter Artisan Gallery and Café is open Thursday to Sunday from 9am to 5pm. Visit for more details.

Read more in the Autumn issue of Hunter&Coastal Lifestyle Magazine. Subscribe here.

Words and images by Michelle Meehan