Hazelhurst Cottage, c.1953
Courtesy of Local Studies Collection, Sutherland Shire Libraries

Do you believe in ghosts? Whether or not you do, many visitors to Hazelhurst’s old cottage have been spooked by their ‘presence’. Once described in local paper, The Leader, as a “house where thing go bump in the night”, the cottage was once home to an incident back in the 1960s where a pencil lifted itself from the table and wrote a message for its owner. The pencil unfortunately did not reveal a directive on the mysteries of the universe, as one would hope in such circumstances. Rather, and perhaps more practically, the clever pencil composed instructions for how to remove a particle of matter that had lodged in its owner’s eye. (Cited in Ian Chandler, “House Where Things Go Bump in the Night”, St George and Sutherland Shire Leader, October 22, 1969).

In more recent times, the cottage has become the site of a thriving artist residency program that feeds into the activities and programming of the Gallery and Arts Centre. To my knowledge the levitating pencil hasn’t returned but strange encounters are reported to this day. Among them is the time a group of Tibetan Monks stayed in the cottage after performing a sand mandala ceremony at the gallery. Much to their horror they were faced with a “racist ghost” in the cottage, packed their things and never returned.

For The Ghost Show six contemporary artists were invited to conjure the ghosts of Hazelhurst by undertaking a residency in this so-called haunted house. The artists were also introduced to the story of Ben and Hazel Broadhurst, the couple who built the cottage and lived there until their deaths – Ben in 1990 and Hazel in 1994. Their generous property bequest to Sutherland Council in the mid-seventies led to the birth of Hazelhurst in 2000. 

Perhaps the ghosts are Ben and Hazel? Maybe it’s the same spirits the Broadhurst’s communicated with during their lifetime? Perhaps their son Jimmy, who died at the age of four, is among them? Aside from running a shirt-manufacturing factory in Newtown and their farm at home on the Kingsway in Gymea, the Broadhursts championed psychic phenomena, with Ben particularly interested in astrology and theosophy and Hazel a student of numerology. Throughout the 1950s Ben was the President of the Sydney Psychic Research Society and lectured widely on spiritual phenomena to public or private groups. At home, he communicated to the dead through his daughter, who discovered she was a medium at the age of 17.

Ben recalled in a 1974 newspaper exposé about his paranormal talents that one night in bed he felt a tug on his pyjama sleeve. Ben turned to Hazel and said, “We have one of our spirit friends with us tonight”. The incident was forgotten about until a few days later when a stranger approached him at the library and said: “I have been asked to tell you that it was your son Jimmy who tugged your sleeve the other night”. Though he died at four, Jimmy maintained contact with his father assuring him how happy he was on “the other side”.

When asked in the same article about “the other side”, Ben claimed to have been given first-hand accounts by the dead of what it’s like in the afterlife: “There are flowers and trees and all kinds of beautiful things,” he said. “When people first cross over they spend some time relaxing and looking at the sights and then they take up a vocation – usually something they had always wanted to do on earth but had never got around to, like learning a language for example”. At this point the journalist “without trying to sound flippant” asked Ben if you could “take up, say swimming” on the other side. “Yes, there are swimming pools there,” Mr Broadhurst said. (Cited in Neil Q. Bonner, “Spirits, ESP – it’s all stern stuff for Ben”, Shire Pictorial, Wednesday, June 12, 1974).

Meanwhile on earth, the Broadhursts earned a kind of ‘crackpot’ reputation for some, with the cottage being regarded by suspicious locals as a den of iniquity. Ben and Hazel’s niece, Dix Hawke, recalls that false rumours ran rife about Hazelhurst being “a gambling den, a brothel and a sly grog shop”.[iii] Long before curating exhibitions at Hazelhurst, my own encounter with Hazelhurst dates back to the 1980s when I grew up in the Shire/St George region. My brother had a girlfriend, Sue, who still lives on Gymea Bay Road. One time we walked by the property and shuddered as Sue told us that a witch lived inside. By that time Hazelhurst was run down, overgrown and a paradise for possums and stray cats so it was no surprise that such rumours had become so embedded in the collective consciousness of the Shire community.

As such, the Hazelhurst cottage continues to this day to be inextricably linked – whether we believe it or not – to a family history haunted by what appears to be a friendly and welcoming spirit world, however much we regard it with fear and suspicion. Despite the fact that the art deco cottage has retained most of its idiosyncratic features (such as the famous sunken bath situated next to a toilet that is equally famous for being the first in the Shire) the cottage has undergone renovations since the Broadhursts crossed over to the other side.

Ben and Hazel designed and built the cottage with assistance by local architect Harry Smith after World War II in 1946-47. The Shire was semi-rural farm country back then with metropolitan Sydney ending at Tom Uglys Bridge, which was still a toll way until 1952. The Broadhursts built their ‘farmlet’ home among the sylvan scrub of Gymea when the area was populated with very few dwellings – a stark contrast to the rapid development of houses and units that proliferated in the 1960s and ‘70s. 

Despite the growing industrialisation and suburbanisation of Gymea, and by extension the Shire, Ben and Hazel remained committed to their land, warding off pressure from aggressive property developers. Dix has described the property in its heyday as a thriving orchard of fruit trees cultivated amongst a well-tended garden of roses, dahlias, gladiolus, snapdragons, marigolds and pansies to name a few. Over 200 chooks, two goats, a cow called Ruby, and ponies Skipper and Gurrabah Nancys McKenna (Chickanee for short) lived there too. According to Dix, Chickanee often walked through the local shopping centre and “was probably the only pony to have gone into the Commercial Bank of Gymea!” When Skipper died, a larger Shetland pony named Chilawee joined Chickanee at the Hazelhurst farm. (Cited in Dix Hawke, Hazelhurst Cottage pamphlet, Sutherland Shire Council).

More famous than Skipper, however, was the Broadhurst’s German Shepherd Lass, who allegedly had psychic powers that manifested when she found lost property – rings, keys, petrol caps, you name it, Lass would find it. The spirit of Lass permeates Hazelhurst to this day and has been acknowledged through various artistic precursors to The Ghost Show.

Redback Graphix, Lass the Psychic Dog, 2003

For instance, in 2003 Hazelhurst commissioned Michael Callaghan of Redback Graphix to illustrate and design a children’s colouring book called Lass the Psychic Dog, which was packaged with a box of crayons. In 2006, Christopher Bruce was commissioned to create a permanent installation called Hall of Fame – The Trophy Room, in which a portrait of Lass is sculpted from wire and hung in the café/community gallery area alongside wire portraits of various other famous dogs. Sydney artist Nana Ohnesorge was curated by Ron and George Adams into the Hazelhurst exhibition Our Lucky Country (still different) in 2007. After her residency at the cottage she produced a stunning painting inspired by Lass and the Broadhursts called Secret Garden (2007).

The selected group of artists for The Ghost Show were asked to respond in some way to this specific local haunting as a starting point for the development of an artwork that also reflects the concerns and methodologies of their own practice as artists. Known for an accomplished video practice that encompasses documentary and portraiture, Kate Murphy made contact with Dix during her residence at the gallery. A dedicated dog trainer and palmist, Dix came to Australia from Canada in the mid-sixties. The initial six-week stay extended into permanent residence with Dix settling and forming a family in the Shire. A close bond developed with Ben and Hazel that resulted in Dix retiring to nurse the Broadhursts in their late years so they could die at Hazelhurst. In a way Murphy’s video portrait of Dix and her beloved dog Jesse acts as a ballast for The Ghost Show, by giving voice to Dix’s knowledge, experience and insight about Hazelhurst, psychic phenomena and dogs.

Eugenia Raskopoulos brought her own dogs to Hazelhurst during her residence, hoping they would sniff out the spiritual energy of the cottage. The video Waiting for Lass depicts standard poodles Astro and Stellar nosing around, mapping out ‘dog choreography’ of to and fro movement in the space. Raskopoulos ‘ghosts’ the image in the editing process suggesting they are just as trapped by the time warp of the dwelling as its ‘real’ ghosts are. Astro and Stellar’s search for Lass becomes a claustrophobic, infinite waiting game – just like a dog chasing its tail.

The barking dogs heard in Raskopoulos’s video are not to be confused with what is heard in the work of Robyn Backen. Several Bakelite telephones are configured on the floor of the gallery space in front of a mirrored surface, suggesting a distinction between what is real and reflected. The world of reflections is a psychic territory for Backen that amplifies the dramatic, almost circular and séance-like arrangement of the phones. One of the vintage phones is left off the hook with a kind of ‘dog talk’ emanating from the receiver – a human approximation of an unknowable dog language that simultaneously conjures the spirit of Lass and the links between the telepathic and telephonic. Ultimately for Backen, the medium is the message as much as the medium brings the psychic message from the “other side” of the mirror.

After learning of speculation that dead children haunt Hazelhurst, Daniel Kojta brought a medium to the cottage who verified their existence. Based on this experience, Kojta’s video installation explores the burden of a buried past on the present, which by implication implies the relationship absence shares with presence. In Dancing naked, with chance in the corner of my eye, a viewer approaches a discrete space. Just before entering they could catch glimpses of a child merging with static on a vintage television monitor. Once the viewer is inside the image cuts entirely to static. The haunting returns once the space is divested of human presence, suggesting ghosts are “a visual taste of absence” that is only visible from the corner of the eye.

Matt Glenn has created a three-panel work A Secret History (Self, Other, Passage) that mixes supernatural and religious themes with Edmund Burke’s idea of ‘the sublime’ as psychological state teetering on the precipice of this world and the next. In the first panel, the viewer is confronted with their ‘wounded’ reflection in a mirrored surface, distorted by the exit holes left by .38 calibre bullet holes. The reflected self is obscured in the black photograph of the second panel, ironically revealing the black photo as an object marked by an excess of light, image and colour, yet muted in its refection of the world. The neon Gothic arch of the third panel acts as a passage to what the artist describes as “the hinting of an infinite space beyond our understanding, defining our smallness yet inviting the exercising of faith”. 

The passage to the sublime hereafter is channelled for Wade Marynowsky through sound. Phantom of the rock eisteddfod, the tri tone is a darkly humorous installation of plywood shards painted in glitter caked black gloss enamel and ominously scored to the sonic frequencies of the ‘tri tone’. Since the early 18th century, the Devil has been associated with this musical interval – an association happily exploited by metal bands such as Black Sabbath. The Devil is summoned in Marynowsky’s work, suggesting His sinister powers have left a trail of destruction in the wake of a satanic earthquake. Like coal before it turns to diamonds, the seductive look of Marynowsky’s installation co-opts the tri tone’s supernatural energy to evoke the kind of transformation only a fallen angel like Lucifer could make possible. 

By organising an exhibition like The Ghost Show, Hazelhurst has made possible an opportunity to creatively address through contemporary art the significant and unconventional role the Broadhursts have played in the community. Importantly, an exhibition like this connects with Hazelhurst’s ongoing programming agenda to address local stories of significance. Ultimately, the artists in The Ghost Show bring to the Shire artworks that tune into the strange frequencies of paranormal, spiritual, real or imagined hauntings that continue to fascinate and compel over time. 

Robyn Backen in The Ghost Show, 2010
Photo: Silversalt

Curatorial catalogue essay for The Ghost Show at Hazelhurst Arts Centre, 4 December 2010 – 30 January 2011.

Published by Hazelhurst Art Gallery in 2010.