After more than 25 years working from Unit 3 at J-Shed in Fremantle, 53 subsequent public artworks, and a bunch of awards between them, ceramicist Jenny Dawson and fine art photographer Peter Zuvela have now been acknowledged locally, winning the Fremantle Chamber of Commerce 2020 Creative Industries Excellence Award. The two thought they had little chance after being short listed against Fremantle Arts Centre. “It was a bit of a David and Goliath situation,” says Dawson, “so we were really shocked to win.”
The two work collaboratively, with Dawson as ceramicist and designer, and Zuvela as studio manager. “We help each other, and bounce ideas off each other,” says Zuvela, who often rolls clay, while Dawson acts as an assistant on his photographic projects. Dawson says Zuvela has installed every single public artwork they’ve completed. “He has an undeniable skill with concrete,” she says, while Zuvela says Dawson is brilliant with budgets. “We have never gone over budget with any of our projects,” says Dawson. Her advice to those tackling the tendering process for public art is to make copious notes and carefully prepare from the beginning. “I come from a science/physics/maths background which has been useful in preparing tenders, and in calculating the placement of huge mosaics for instance.”
When the two first took their practice to J-Shed, the building was little more than a shell. Dawson says at the time, the City of Fremantle wanted to provide affordable, semi-industrial studio space for artists which would be centrally located and open to tourists and the public. “They took the asbestos off the ceiling and walls. There was no water, toilets or electricity, so we installed the infrastructure ourselves.”
There’s no doubt it’s a draughty, unlined building, with birds often making their way in through gaps where the walls meet the ceiling. As we sit down for coffee, Zuvela shoos away several seagulls who have popped in through the front door, and have obviously found a friendly place to visit.
Sculptor Greg James also moved into the neighbouring unit at the same time. Both James, and the duo practice of Dawson and Zuvela, have remained stable tenants in two of the four units on the site “Both Greg and I came to the building straight from art school and took a big risk starting at J-Shed, but we’re still here, making art and sharing it with other people.” She says the remaining two studios have changed hands often. “It’s hard to make a living as an artist, so people have come and gone. I have my own personal work, but to make a living we have to do something like public art to survive.”
A gallery of sorts is crammed into the entrance to the unit, where a dozen artists are represented. The two also provide space for other artists when there is room, mentor young artists, offer paid work opportunities for both new graduates and established artists, and work collaboratively on projects with several Indigenous artists, including Indigenous Elder and artist Sandra Hill.
Dawson says the little community of artists at J-Shed, a few steps away from the shores of Bather’s Beach, has been under threat in recent years with a tavern proposed for the site. “There was a trial, with sound checks starting at 11 in the morning, and pop up toilets everywhere, but it didn’t work. People who don’t know this place think it’s beautiful, but most days you can’t go outside because of the wind – it’s horrendous! Markets have also been tried, but sand blew into the food. It’s an inhospitable environment, but for artist’s it’s perfect!”
Zuvela says the battle is far from over. “We’ve defeated two proposals for development so far, but we are far from being on stable ground. The council took the lease from us about two years ago with the intent to develop the area, so everything is still up in the air.”
Asked how they have managed during the pandemic and the two say they’ve had to adapt like everyone else. Zuvela, for instance, has a passion is street photography in Fremantle where he says the light at night has a special quality. He combines freelance photography with photographic tours of Fremantle and teaching photography from the basics of DLSR through to mobile phone photography. He introduced online presentations during lockdown, shorter courses and individual sessions in Covid-safe conditions, but a planned photographic tour of Croatia was a casualty of the pandemic, to be rescheduled at a later date. Video presentations have also allowed Dawson to continue working on a project for the 100th anniversary of Inglewood Primary School with students interacting with her virtually to produce designs for the project due for completion in January 2021.
“We’re pretty busy here,” says Dawson. “We work quite hard at what we do, but it’s such a gift to be here at J-Shed. It’s very special.”
Jenny Dawson and Peter Zuvela have won five Australian design awards for public art including the Subiaco Centenary Tiles Project and the Leighton Indigenous Paving Project.
Built in c 1912, J Shed was originally located on Victoria Quay as a goods shed. In the 1960’s half of it was relocated to its present site on the A Class reserve as part of the Historic Arthur Head Precinct. It was used as a fibreglass workshop until 1988 when it was shortened in length as part of the Arthur Head Bicentennial project. In 1992 after restoration by the City of Fremantle it became independent artists studios.
For an insight into J-Shed, see this film by Fremantle Filmmaker Rodney Stratton: https://vimeo.com/311661079