Art on Fire: How Braidwood residents can respond to summer's disaster

EXHAUSTION:
EXHAUSTION: "Shattered", by Christine Dimmer.

An artworks project giving residents of Braidwood and nearby villages a chance to creatively respond to the summer's bushfires is also a way for the community to heal.

The Braidwood Regional Arts Group is encouraging locals to contribute to Art on Fire: Telling our stories of the 2019-20 bushfires.

"This enables people to talk to each other about the fires in a non-threatening, non-judgemental way," organiser Christine Dimmer, painter and retired teacher, said. "People are able to let others know how they feel without worrying they will be told they are weak or can't cope. Just being together in a group and talking about positive things to an understanding audience is really good."

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Locals can create an artwork - including paintings, drawings, photographs, sculpture, poems, essays, short stories, and musical compositions - that respond to the summer's bushfires. These works will be displayed at the Arts Centre from December 4 to 13, and collected in a book reflecting on the bushfire season.

Shane Fitzsimmons, head of Resilience NSW and former commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, will open the exhibition and launch the book.

Entries must be submitted by October 20 to be included in the book, but items can still be submitted for the exhibition up to December 1. For more information, visit https://www.bragart.com.au/ and the BRAG Facebook page.

"Smouldering garden after the fire", by Catherine Daniel.

"Smouldering garden after the fire", by Catherine Daniel.

Braidwood was surrounded by fire on all sides, Ms Dimmer said: Talleganda to the west, Deua to the south-east, Currowan and Nerriga to the east and north. For a couple of months, there were no clear skies, only smoke. "It was just horrible," Ms Dimmer said.

Many in the community are still suffering; Ms Dimmer's farming friends have told her that many of their cattle have lost calves.

"Even if they managed to get through the fire, the droughts and the floods, there are still consequences for the animals and the people who own them," she said.

The last few months have been grim - but the people of Braidwood take care of each other, Ms Dimmer said.

"We've got a range of people who live in Braidwood, from retired academics to greenies and hippies to fairly conservative people ... but they are very good at putting aside differences. What binds them all is the sense of community: that we all live in one place, and we need to look after each other."

"Mongarlowe boys in action", by William Verdon.

"Mongarlowe boys in action", by William Verdon.

Ms Dimmer estimates that around 150 people will contribute to the project. Entries close in October, but BRAG has already received a dozen entries, including short stories, stitched work, and photographs.

Ms Dimmer herself painted a picture of two weary firemen slumped on a bench, one cradling his head in his hands. (This work is on display in Braidwood's main street.)

"Whenever I looked at the news, as well as the horror of the flames, what really came across to me was the exhaustion of the firefighters," Ms Dimmer said. "So many of them hadn't been home; they hadn't slept properly; they hadn't eaten properly; they hadn't washed properly, poor things, and they just looked utterly exhausted."

Two Rural Fire Service members - William Verdon (photographer and master jeweller from Mongarlowe) and Christina Marino (crafter from Bombay) - have submitted works. Talking about the horrible things they had experienced in the context of doing something positive helped them to heal, they told Ms Dimmer.

Ms Marino's work Flame Height was inspired by her night on the fireground at Bombay on November 29 and the three months of fire that followed. "I've never felt so insignificant and helpless, despite years of training, as I did this summer," Ms Marino wrote. "I stitched this as part of my process to come to terms with all I had seen and done."

"Flame Height", by Christina Marino.

"Flame Height", by Christina Marino.

Teacher John Longhurst wrote a fictional story about a Sydney man who moves to Braidwood to become an artist and finds his inspiration in the fires. Artist Ray Monde has painted a stark picture of a fire-ravaged landscape.

Three creative workshops will help to inspire locals. Nicola Bowery (poet) and Harry Laing (poet, children's author, and performer) will host writing workshops this Monday, August 31, and on Monday, September 7, taking people through the process of turning an idea into a poem or a story.

Marianne Courtenay (artist and printmaker) will run drawing / creative postcard workshops on Tuesdays September 8 and 15. All workshops are free; book by emailing artonfire.braidwood@gmail.com.

"I really encourage people to get to the workshops if they possibly can," Ms Dimmer said. "Even if you don't end up producing an artwork or a poem, go along for the experience and enjoy learning something new. There's no obligation to produce a masterpiece that has to be publicly displayed."

"Jumped the River", by Ray Monde.

"Jumped the River", by Ray Monde.

The art project is also a way for locals to thank firefighters, Ms Dimmer said. Residents can write a postcard expressing their thoughts or a photograph, which will form part of an installation. BRAG also wants to contact all the members of the emergency services who fought the bushfires, and write their names on postcards for the installation.

The book will list support organisations and services available in the local area. Copies will be donated to the National Library, the State Library of NSW, the Royal Commission into Bushfires, QPRC library, and the Braidwood Historical Society.

This is BRAG's second book project, following Art on Farms(2018). BRAG has secured funding from the state and federal governments, and the Bendigo Bank. People who contribute to the book can purchase a discounted copy. Any proceeds will go back to BRAG, a non-profit organisation that hosts community events throughout the year, from music and art to martial arts and exercise classes.