Art and soul: The sights and sounds of Adamstown Arts
In the heart of Newcastle, just a stone’s throw from the world’s largest coal export port, you’ll find the site of Adamstown Uniting Church. A proud building marked by its bright red doors and vaulted ceilings, this Church is home to a lively and forward-thinking congregation that’s as creative as it is faithful. It’s also birthplace of Adamstown Arts.
The Rev. Dr Rod Pattenden has been the Minister at the Church for the past two years. An arts school graduate, experienced visual artist, curator, author, and Chairperson and member of the Blake Society, Rod was invited to take up the role thanks to his experience and the congregation’s need for a minister with a background in the arts.
When Rod came to Adamstown UC, there was already a strong music program that had been running for close on two decades. “It already had a strong platform and I was impressed by their commitment to reach out in the community and mix it with all sorts of people through the arts,” said Rod.
Since coming to Adamstown UC Rod has introduced a number of initiatives including visual art exhibitions and creative projects, Messy Church, specialised children’s programs, and community workshops.
“It’s like the Church is a studio; a place where you can experiment and play with your life rather than a place which is prescriptive about rights and wrongs. It’s really just a space to work out who you are as a human being and grow and thrive. We’re all trying to work out what it is to be human and people are looking for space to explore, so the arts provide a lot of resources in that respect,” states Rod.
One of the flagship projects of Adamstown Arts is Dungeon Jazz, which was founded by Rod Barnes and Chris Budden in April 1997. Famed for its contemporary jazz sounds, it attracts talent locally and from across the globe. The original aim of the jazz program was to create a relationship between the Church and its community and for the past 17 years it’s achieved that and more.
The home of Dungeon Jazz is the basement of the Church, a fitting location given the importance of sound and atmosphere for this genre of music. “We have concerts 5 – 6 times a year. We’ve invested a lot in the space. We have two grand pianos, lighting systems, two sets of sounds systems and a lot of other equipment. We want to supply the musicians with the very best to enhance their music. Next year we have an Italian violinist, an American piano player, UK guitarist and jazz pianist from Belgium. We also support a lot of local bands”, said Rod.
Rod also encourages young people in the community to get involved with Dungeon Jazz, offering them the chance to experience running events and learn about sound and lighting.
Rod’s wife, Jenny Barnes is also deeply linked with the Church and Adamstown Arts. An accomplished musician and former opera singer with Opera Australia, for the past 10 years Jenny has run the Sunday Interlude concert program. This year the series included four Sunday morning concerts and a Piano Festival over three days in August, and culminated in a Gala Concert in November. Half the proceeds raised by the series will go to Lifeline.
“Our three core values are faith, social justice and creativity, so creativity is kind of like an expression of the spirit. The audience we have, which has grown over the past 10 years, is extraordinarily faithful. When people first came they were a little suspect about what we were trying to do. But that stopped fairly quickly. Our message isn’t about hitting people over the head and dragging them to a Sunday service. It’s ‘Please get to know us and know who we are. If you need us for a time in your life, you know where to come.’ It’s been a long-term exercise in building community trust,” explains Jenny.
Rod and Jenny’s daughter, Heather Price, has been involved with the Church since she was born. She’s a trained classical musician and among other roles, runs Expresso: Faith. Art. Music. Community — a monthly performance that invites a local musician or artist to share their work and story about how they work creatively with the audience.
“At this particular time in Newcastle, venues are drying up. To have a place that is open to putting on all sorts of different music for all different ages in a spiritual space is a great way to encourage creativity. It’s making the Church more accessible for the general community, and so it fills two very important roles.
“We have had a lot of success with this. It seems to be a way of reaching out into the secular community. What we’re really trying to do is encourage a part of the community that isn’t familiar with coming to the Church to feel comfortable in that environment, and start to renew those relationships again. For me creativity is a way of communicating that inner self. I love Expresso, because it encourages inclusiveness and understanding of lots of different sorts of people,” reflects Heather.
Like Heather, her husband, Adam Price, is also a musician. His band Cotton Sidewalk recently played to a full house. In their finale gig, the band performed the songs from their spellbinding album Evil versus People. Within the awe-inspiring walls of the Church, replete with the Church choir, keyboards and synthesisers, a live string quintet, and the pipe organ, the band captivated the audience.
All the proceeds from the gig went to the Joseph Astro Price Memorial Fund, named after Heather and Adam’s son who passed away just before the album was released. The Fund supports the Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit at the Royal Women’s hospital in Melbourne.
Music isn’t the only artistic expression to grace the walls of Adamstown Church. Kaz Thorpe, a local photographer, recently held a photographic exhibition inside the Church. “I think religion or spirituality is in everything. So there’s absolutely no reason why a church can’t be involved in looking at the beauty and the wonder of music and art and fellowship. Art is about fellowship and supporting each other. It’s a way of communicating and being with people not because of an agenda but because of generosity and community; because of caring and compassion”, explains Kaz.
“I’d like to think it was an interesting experience for parishioners and visitors to be welcomed into the Church and see an art exhibition. I think the Church has really embraced Adamstown Arts because they see there is another way to be in the community. I think it’s a wonderful sense of community and friendship, and I’ve felt very welcomed”, reflects Kaz.
This year Adamstown Uniting Church has been celebrating its 140 year anniversary, a significant milestone in anyone’s language. “Part of the celebration is acknowledging the history but also recognising that the congregation is so warm and welcoming to new ideas. It’s just so wonderful having a congregation that is proud of its history but is also open to change.
“We’re providing an entry point into the heart of the Church for people who choose to move into that and have deeper experiences of learning about creativity and exploring life in various ways. We do all the traditional stuff with studies and other activities and workshops, it’s just that we’re also offering a generous doorway of interaction that’s two way with the community.
“We’re finding that people really love that and we’re building partnerships with performers and other organisations who respect what we’re doing. We’re building a bigger program because we’ve developed trusted relationships with performers and other arts groups in Newcastle. It’s just brilliant!” exclaims Rod.
The proof is in the pudding
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting down to a slice of delicious Adamstown Pudding Kitchen pudding, with its famous moist consistency and full flavour, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d gone to heaven if only for a few minutes. Little wonder they’re recognised as one of Australia’s finest gourmet puddings.
In 1971, armed with her great grandmother’s recipe, a member of the Adamstown Uniting Church set about making puddings in her home kitchen to raise proceeds for a new Sunday school at the Tower Methodist Church. They were an instant hit and by 1979, the Church had purpose-built a kitchen that would become known around the world as the Adamstown Pudding Kitchen.
Jocelyn Harvey is the chairperson of the Kitchen. She’s been a member of the Church for longer than she can remember. Not surprising, there has been much change over the decades both within the Church and the Kitchen.
“Today we have a full commercial kitchen with a full-time supervisor, four paid staff and a large contingent of volunteers. The kitchen meets all the council and government health regulations and complies with the health and safety standards. A far cry from its early days in the basement of the Church,” recalls Jocelyn.
To meet Christmas demand, pudding making starts in July. But the Kitchen operates all year round. They sell their puddings at local markets and more recently, have started filling global orders via their website. The Kitchen is also expanding its line of products. “We’re experimenting at the moment with sauces and brandy butter. We’re always on the lookout for new possibilities”, explains Jocelyn.
While the Kitchen still draws on the tradition of its ‘secret’ recipe, today the business has transformed from its early days, contributing around $60,000 a year to the Church’s outreach programs. “The whole emphasis now is making sure we run a business. And of course, we’re like all organisations — we’re an aging population and we have to plan for the day when we don’t have as many volunteers as we have now. And while we do offer work experience to volunteers who are seeking work, we have to look at marketing and promotion in ways that don’t rely quite so heavily on volunteers,” said Jocelyn.
If reading this article has inspired you to start your own creative arts program, Rod has this advice for you. “There are often a lot of creative people within the life of the congregation who often get overlooked because they don’t have the skill base because the Church is looking for Sunday school teachers or people who fit the program.
“I think it’s really important to turn that on its head and ask, ‘What are you interested in? What are you good at? Where’s your passion and how can your participation in the lives of the Church be one where that can grow?’ One of our traditions says that the glory of God is the person fully alive. So ask yourself, ‘How can you give people that opportunity to come alive?’ Try out new things, no matter how old or young you are it should be a place where people have an opportunity to grow as human beings,” explains Rod.