It says something about the character of Broken Hill that, not long after I turn up at the city's Pro Hart Gallery, introduce myself as a writer, and start asking a few questions about the painter, I am being invited for coffee with his widow at the family home next door.
Raylee Hart is generous with her time and, sipping our drinks, we chat and she tells me about Pro's work, about the new generation of artists in Broken Hill, and how they still find inspiration in the city and its outback surrounds.
"I love Broken Hill," Raylee tells me. "The landscape here is the red earth and the trees, which a lot of people see in Pro's paintings. They say they can't be real but when you come into Broken Hill and see these trees, you think wow!"
I see the vibrancy of Pro Hart's works in the gallery next door and understand why he was dubbed 'the father of outback painting'. From his early notoriety in the 1960s until his death in 2006, he managed to capture the energy and magic of this part of the country, in contrast to earlier colonial painters who often seemed to inject melancholy into their scenes.
His legacy is honoured at the city's biggest art competition, now named the Pro Hart Outback Prize and sponsored by Raylee and her family. This year's finalists are on display at the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery (until 14 November) and it's well worth seeing. The gallery is the oldest in regional NSW and also has a reputation as one of the best, highlighting the works of local and regional artists.
And there are a lot to choose from. Over the years, Broken Hill has attracted artists from across the country, drawn to the inspiring environment, the remote (and cheap) studio spaces, and a friendly community. Many of the emerging artists don't have galleries (and there's probably an opportunity to develop a tour to see their studios) but there are still lots you can visit. Broken Hill is said to have more galleries than pubs these days!
Art becomes a constant feature as I explore Broken Hill. I visit the Silver City Mint and Art Centre, famous for The Big Picture, the record-breaking 100-metre long and 12-metre high canvas painting of the region's landscapes that took artist Peter Anderson over two years to create.
When I pop into the Palace Hotel to have a drink in the pub made famous by Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, I'm struck by how impressive the murals covering the interior walls of the entrance are. Painted by Gordon Waye in the 1970s, each mural features water to give the impression of an oasis in the outback.
And, just out of town at the top of a hill in the Living Desert State Park are twelve sandstone sculptures, each creating shapes on the skyline, each with its own story to tell. They have become a popular sunset spot as the colours change and the works turn to silhouettes - and those last hours of daylight are also a good time to walk around the park's Flora and Fauna Sanctuary.
I keep seeing connections in Broken Hill. To get to the Royal Flying Doctor Service Visitor Centre, I drive down Pro Hart Way (the airport road was renamed in his honour last year). The visitor centre is smaller than the one in Dubbo, but you can see normally see the planes and more behind-the-scenes activities here, at the largest Flying Doctors base in the country.
And one evening, when I head to Outback Astronomy, I discover that it's run out of the old RFDS headquarters. The astronomy show makes the most of the bright stars you find this far from big cities, with the Milky Way streaking across the sky. Reclining in a chair outside, I look up at the constellations as Linda Nadge points out their shapes, tells stories of planets far away, and finds nebulae even further away in the telescopes.
"It's a passion and there are new discoveries every day," Linda tells me about astronomy. "If you see the stars and if you see the sky in the beautiful way we see it tonight, it's so inspiring."
Conveniently, I am staying at the Broken Hill Outback Resort near the astronomy show. Although it's a little out of town, what you get are stunning views across the red dirt and low undulating desert. There are spaces for caravans but, from the cabin I'm staying in, I get an uninterrupted view of the landscape through the large window next to the spa bath!
Despite the ochre hues and the dry earth, Broken Hill is not nearly as 'outback' as I expected. You can feel the remoteness, but the city is actually quite urbane with its art galleries, new cafes (try the Silly Goat), and friendly community. There's also lots to do here for visitors, and you need a few days to see it all.
There's the Line of Lode Miners Memorial, which gives you a perfect view across the grid pattern of the city centre; the GeoCentre has a whole building of information about minerals and the mining heritage of the region; the Sulphide Street Railway & Historical Museum, where you'll see original train carriages and meet some of the volunteers who've been working on the railways for decades; and there are the interesting heritage buildings all throughout the city.
Before I leave Broken Hill, I stop at Bell's Milk Bar, a local institution. It's believed to be Australia's oldest still-operating milk bar, having started in 1892. The current design is based on the style it had in the 1950s and the syrups and cordials are still handmade based on the same recipes.
"People come here for the memories... and the milkshakes," says Dianne Langley, who bought the shop in 2004.
And I think that's one way to see Broken Hill, as somewhere nostalgic that brings back memories of milk bars, of mining, of drag queen movies. But there's certainly also another side to it these days, where the red dirt has lost its melancholy and gained a vibrancy that is inspiring artists and the broader community to paint their canvas with streaks of modernity.
WHAT TO DO:
- See some of the local art at the Pro Hart Gallery, the Silver City Mint and Art Centre, the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery, or one of the many others
- Go for a walk at the Living Desert State Park and stay for sunset to see the sculptures
- Learn about the work of the Royal Flying Doctor Service at its visitor centre
- Marvel at the bright stars during an evening show at the Outback Astronomy
- Visit some of the city's museums like the GeoCentre, Line of Lode Miners Memorial, and Sulphide Street Railway & Historical Museum
WHERE TO EAT:
WHERE TO STAY:
- For amazing views of the landscape, I would suggest Broken Hill Outback Resort - plus the restaurant has good pub food and pizzas
- If you want to get even closer to nature, you can get camping spots at the Living Desert State Park
- To feel like the cast of Priscilla, you can stay in a room at the Palace Hotel
- Some of the city's nicest rooms are in the heritage-listed Imperial Fine Accommodation