Among mythical beings

Inside the art-world of Robyn and Eric Werkhoven

There are creatures lurking in the garden. In the house there are wild things dancing around the rooms. At the door there is a welcome to come inside.

In 1990 a couple with two children came to the town of Gresford. They lived in a farmhouse, and then behind a shop. Until, in 1998, they came to this house and land in the East Gresford main street, overlooking the valley of the Allyn River. Robyn and Eric Werkhoven have been here ever since.

In this small rural community most people are content to live their lives finding joy and expression in conventional ways. East Gresford is notable for its annual agricultural show, its Easter billycart derby and its rodeo. It is a town of well recorded history and picture-postcard scenery. Robyn and Eric have found a home and acceptance in this community. But they are exceptional. They are artists, and art is the world in which they thrive.

It is a privilege to be welcomed into their domicile.

Eric was born in Java, of Dutch and Indonesian parents. In Eric himself, and in some of the characters he draws, I detect an element of the style of wayang kulit steeped in him from this culture. But political turmoil moved the family to a new start across the Indian ocean – via the Netherlands to Tanzania where he completed his primary schooling, enriched with new cultural experiences. From there, his life moved back to the Netherlands, to Technical School and Art College. And then in 1970 to Australia.
Robyn’s family history goes back to the early settlers in the Penrith area. Her childhood was in Wollongong and her secondary education at Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School. She launched into Art School at Wollongong Technical College and by the ‘70s was a graphic designer in Sydney, screen-printing for textiles and clothing. Along these lines her life might have progressed; but then, in Wollongong, she met Eric.

They may have become hippies for while. They may have made home in a Ford Transit van with a dog and a cat. They may have lived on a hilltop in Nimbin and immersed themselves in a search for enlightenment. It was exactly what artists and poets needed.

By 1988 they were living in Newcastle with a small child and a toddler, and Eric was enrolled in a Visual Arts course at the University of Newcastle. Look out, Hunter Valley, here they come.

Today, Eric and Robyn live in what might best be described as a work-at-home. It is a studio, a residence, a gallery, there being no discernible dividing lines between the elements. At every turn, and I mean every turn, there is art presented right where it is utterly unignorable.

As well as their own work, there are numerous examples of ‘trades’ and purchases from fellow travellers in their precarious world. Is not the life of an artist the last profession into which any parent would seek to launch an offspring? What prospect of a secure future for a painter or a poet or a musician? Study hard and get yourself a proper job.

Well, they did study hard. Indeed they haven’t ever stopped. But somehow all their lives they have resisted the limitations of ‘a proper job’. They are the most inspiring of love stories: their love for each other, and their love for their paths of creativity. They are now in their sixties, and it is easy, sitting chatting in their home’s sunny ‘morning space’, to feel they are in their prime of life.

A tale of two rivers

From a bird’s eye, their patch of ground is on a ridgeline, which leads to the divide between the Allyn River valley and the Paterson River valley. These two rivers are at this point only a short walk apart – a couple of kilometres at most. And so the respective rivers travel, side by side, pursuing the same direction, yet each an identity in itself.

And so I perceive Eric and Robyn. More than 40 years in partnership, they have developed a kind of symbiosis that defies categorisation: it is a togetherness of an evolution, a productivity and an inner prosperity, that is theirs alone. I’m there with a cup of tea, Robyn on my left and Eric on my right, and I am in an environment like nothing I have experienced before: two rare species in a shared habitat of their own remarkable creation.

Their artistic expression I have been exposed to for nearly 30 years – since in the early 1990s when, across the road from the Beatty Hotel in the heart of East Gresford, they boldly opened a shop-front art gallery. Inside I found idiosyncratic human-animal sculptures that could turn a corner of a house or garden into some sort of pagan shrine. And paintings of frolicking recreations of the human form, colourful as a circus and with a similar energy. There was something here, at the edge of eroticism, that made a viewer question: I wonder what they keep in the back room? These artists, I thought, are mischievous. I scan the artworks in the room where we sit. Nothing really naughty here. Haha! But there’s a sparkle in the eyes of these two! I finish my tea and it is time for a tour of the garden.

After summer rain it feels equatorial, with a bamboo grove and Eric’s iconic sculptures embroidered into the fabric of greenery – predators and prey and mythical beasts and cheeky god-figures. Eric is my garden-guide and there’s a touch of Ganesha about him. We turn a corner and meet an elephant with a baby on its back.

“I’m a follower of dreams,” says Eric as he muses into his mixing pot of life, love, disquiet and quietude. “The dreams are my teacher.”

Read more in the Spring issue of Hunter & Coastal Lifestyle Magazine or subscribe here.

Story and photography by Ken Rubelli