Frail fronds sprout from the blackened bush surrounding Mallacoota in Victoria’s East Gippsland.
These are the epicormic buds that lie dormant beneath the bark, appearing when the tree canopy is damaged through natural disasters such as bushfires to help the plant regenerate.
These buds provide a fitting allegory for how the creative community has responded to the catastrophic fires that struck on New Year’s Eve 2019.
Epicormic is a powerful and poetic exhibition at the Mallacoota Art Space, featuring the works of 20 local artists, including nine who lost homes.
It is one of several creative recovery projects by artists, musicians and writers, still coping with the loss of more than 200 buildings, vast swathes of wilderness, and billons of birds and other animals.
Birdlife features strongly throughout the work, homages to the tragic loss of life that was evident all over Mallacoota’s beaches in the days after the fire.
Yolande Oakley’s gouaches honour both the bird life and the slower, deeper, wiser way she has decided to live in this year of loss.
“The landscape was like a Chinese painting — stark black and white with splashes of colour which were the dead birds found in their hundreds and thousands on the beach after the fires,” recalls Yolande. “They tried to escape over water but were not capable of flying the distance so they would be washed in on the tide.”
One of the works is a tribute to the delicate birds that rose from the ashes singing.
“It broke my heart that these birds continued their gentle song despite all that had happened. It seemed like a lesson for all of us,” says Yolande.
Birds are a recurring motif in the relief prints of Stephanie Mew, made from Kangaroo Apple that has dominated the undergrowth since the fires and printed on a wood-grained background.
Sculptural artist Jade Oakley, through a series of December workshops she has just completed with children, has installed 100 silk birds outside the art centre, lit by delicate fairy lights. Flocks of firetails, terns, sea eagles, parrots, rosellas and wren — water birds and forest creatures from the local area.
“They feel like delicate little birds, like something you need to hold and put back together again,” says Jade, whose public installations feature in hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne and have a healing element.
“I like to make works that are uplifting. And in this work I am trying to add something beautiful into the burnt landscape,” she says.
Lynn Casement’s work is a totem pole of the remnants of her home, saved from the ashes. Forty seven years of collecting, distilled to a few broken bits of crockery while torched, buckled tanks and other metals have become a series of beautifully crafted earrings.
Husband Steve, a third generation Mallacoota fisherman who lost his boat as well as the house, is once again making woven ti-tree baskets based on the design of classic crayfish pots.
‘So much of Steve’s family history is gone,’ says Lynn. ‘Making the baskets has been a form of recovery for him.’
Long time resident Don Ashby has used his burnt fence as a canvas. In the Mallacoota Art Space, it sits below a series of graphic paintings by artist Libby Greig called The Road to Recovery.
Libby was in Eden, NSW, when the fires destroyed her house in Mallacoota. Driving back afterwards, she and her son were struck by the burnt road signs.
She decided to take a graphic approach to her painting, using her signature colour separation style to show the progress from most to least burnt signs, with the colours moving from deep browns, reds and purples to more hopeful shades of orange and yellow.
“Though I lost my house, the fire wasn’t as bad for me as others. I lost my husband to cancer 20 years ago, aged just 47, and after a loss like that….
“I could find beauty in the destruction. If you think about that and meditate on it, it gets you some way towards healing.”
Cellist and film composer Kristin Rule’s response to the fires is a concept called Random Acts for which she has created a website (www.madrecovery.com) and a Living Film in which community members tell through video the ongoing story of Mallacoota.
“It has been such a random year, one in which it has been impossible to plan commemorative activities or an arts festival with any certainty. And so we embrace the randomness, the fleeting beauty, the ephemeral nature of life in this, our first, collection of Mallacoota and District (MAD) Random Acts,” notes the website.
Kristin has also just completed an community-led commemoration film which is available online for anyone to view. https://vimeo.com/showcase/mad-bushfire-commemoration.
Several local writers have contributed to a book, The Day Mallacoota Turned Red, with funds raised going towards Mallacoota Emergency Services.