Ray Mather
Tue, September 13, 2011 at 9:37
Stephanie Hunt in Caroline Guishard, Coffs Coast, Coffs Harbour, Heather McKinnon, Ray Mather, Raymond Mather

Raymond Mather is new to Coffs Harbour, but Heather McKinnon has known him since high school days in Tamworth.  Now that he’s in town, she is confident that he is the most interesting person she knows on the Coffs Coast.  He’s an accomplished ballroom dancer and choreographer, a photographer and graphic designer. “Everything he touches is creative,” Heather tells me.  I’m excited to find out all about Coffs Harbour’s new creative force.

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Raymond Mather: A new creative force hits Coffs

Ray Mather sits alone with his latte and Macbook Pro on the broad deck of the OP81 café.  Before the interview begins he has pictures ready to show.  “Here it is before we even started the renovations.  Isn’t that a nice awning?  And here’s the inside gutted.”  He speaks animatedly about CR8 Studios, the new gallery he will open in Coffs Harbour on 30 September.  “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.  Exhibits will be a major monthly event Ray explains.  “There will be a formal opening night on Friday, a big exhibition of 10 to 20 artists on Saturday and Sunday and then it’s over.”

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 of 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 mark you as special or ‘different’.  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.  His voice tinged with irony he explains, “It was really ‘interesting’ being a young dancer in a rural area.”  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 realized 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.  He just happened to be teaching Baz Luhrmann’s mother and sister when Baz started working on Strictly Ballroom and that bit of serendipity, plus his reputation, landed him a gig as tutor and assistant choreographer on the film.  When Strictly Ballroom became a worldwide sensation in 1992, ballroom dancing exploded and Ray’s career blasted off with it.  His studio Dance Avenue was booking out the Drummoyne Civic Centre to accommodate classes of up to 200 people.  Ray worked on other movies, television shows and choreographed fashion shows for Westfield, David Jones and Myer.  He became a dance tutor for NAIDA and Western Sydney University.  He choreographed the People’s Choice Awards and danced at the AFL Grand Final.  He was soaring.

As Ray’s professional career sky rocketed, he engaged in personal development work to keep himself emotionally grounded.  A ten year relationship had ended and Ray says he went looking to find who he was and how he belonged in the world.  He saw a psychologist for a while, tried raiki, walked on fire with Anthony Robbins.  Eventually Ray discovered the metaphysical philosophy of Stuart Wilde who focuses his work on those people whose mind and soul do not align to the constraints of life in a regular society.  A philosophy that celebrated being different must have felt liberating.

Perhaps it was a sense of liberation that gave Ray the courage to turn his seemingly successful life upside down.  In 1998 Ray’s father died, there were family squabbles around the will, another long term relationship ended and the ballroom dancing business was slowing.  “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.  After 6 months travelling around Cape York, Ray landed in Cairns where he worked at The Tanks Art Centre doing community arts development.  He was drawn to photography by the freedom it gave and encouraged by friends who told him he had an eye.  Starting with film photography, he migrated to digital, discovering the world of digital media and web design.  After 6 years in Cairns, Ray returned to Sydney in 2005 to submerge himself in learning digital 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 who says he has his “head sorted”.  And he’s very 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.

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Click here to see some examples of Ray’s photography. 

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The most interesting person that Ray knows on the Coffs Coast is Carolyn Guichard.  Not surprisingly, Carolyn is an artist like Ray; one of the many people that have encouraged him in establishing the studio.  She is a film maker and a good one apparently.  She won equal first prize with herself at a recent film festival in Sydney so it’s not just Ray who thinks she’s good.  I can’t wait to continue exploring the art world of the Coffs Coast.

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Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (http://themostinterestingpersoniknow.net/).
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