A new creative force hits Coffs
RAY Mather sits alone with his latte and Macbook Pro on the broad deck of the OP81 café.
He speaks animatedly about CR8 Studios, the new gallery he will open in Coffs Harbour on October 14.
"I see it as a creative hub," Ray explains.
The space will be used for Ray's photographic work, as a meeting space and to exhibit the works of local artists.
As Ray enthuses about his plans and ideas, two things stand out about this tall, handsome man: 1. He is clearly gay, and 2. He is a true creator, the sort of person who sources power and joy through the simple act of creating.
Being gay and being truly creative have a few things in common.
Both pull you in directions that are often uncomfortable.
Both can be lonely and isolating. Both require a special kind of self awareness.
Ray's story is a journey toward self discovery and acceptance.
The story begins in regional NSW when the boy who had always wanted to dance discovered ballroom dancing at age 10.
"It just worked," Ray says. "I had found my expression."
Dancing became the centre of his young life with competitions every weekend. But it wasn't always easy.
As Ray became aware of his own sexuality, living in regional Australia became increasingly oppressive.
"Coming out as a gay person in a regional area was just a horrible experience," he explains.
"I realised that I didn't want to be in a small place being gay, so I thought I'll get lost in Sydney."
Instead of getting lost, Ray found himself in the big city.
He immersed himself in the competitive dancing world. In 1986 he turned pro, partnering with Sonya Kruger, now famous for her appearances on Dancing with the Stars.
Ray and Sonya won the Nationals, the Australasian Championships and the South Pacific Dance Championships.
At the same time Ray started a dance studio called Dance Avenue and landed a gig as tutor and assistant choreographer on Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom.
When the film became a worldwide sensation in 1992, ballroom dancing exploded and Ray's career blasted off with it.
His studio was booked out, he worked on other movies and fashion shows and as a dance tutor at NAIDA, choreographed the People's Choice Awards and danced at the AFL Grand Final.
He was soaring.
Perhaps it was the euphoria of reaching for the stars that gave Ray the courage to turn his successful life upside down.
In 1998 Ray's father died, there were family squabbles around the will and another long-term relationship ended.
"It was one of those big moments where a whole bunch of things ended and I had a choice to stay with what I knew or cross the line and go somewhere new," Ray explains.
He bought a tent and a sleeping bag and drove north.
"I wanted to know what else I was capable of being beyond ballroom dancing Raymond."
As it turns out Ray was capable of complete reinvention.
Ray was drawn to photography by the freedom it gave and encouraged by friends who told him he had an eye for it.
Starting with film photography, he migrated to digital, discovering the world of digital media and web design.
His skills sharpened and his photography gained acclaim, including a shortlisting for the Moran Portrait Prize, but reinvention was hard.
There were terrible periods of self doubt and depression.
"I was angry with myself for walking away from a successful business and felt I had nothing.
I had to get comfortable with what that meant and then re-emerge."
Ray did re-emerge and in November 2010 he moved to Coffs Harbour to set up CR8 Studios.
He's back in regional NSW, but this time he is not the little gay boy who wanted to dance.
He's a confident, comfortable, successful artist. And he's excited about the studio.
"It's not just a gallery, it's a hub for all sorts of creative activity," Ray explains.
"The opening night is going to be great!"
Raymond Mather has found himself and Coffs Harbour is about to reap the rewards of his journey.