25 August 2022

Art helps bushfire-stricken Quaama students carve out a fresh start

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Velvet Ventura and Stevie Whitby with the tree trunk they helped carve

Quaama Public School students Velvet Ventura and Stevie Whitby with the tree trunk they helped carve after it fell on the home of learning support officer Barb Fenwick. Photo: NSW Education.

When a flaming tree smashed through her roof, Barb Fenwick could not imagine an upside. Now, students have helped transform that charred cypress pine into an intricately carved artwork for Quaama Public School.

The tree that fell in the 2019-20 bushfires stands proud at the Far South Coast school where Barb works as a learning support officer. It is adorned with images of creatures who also suffered, including a kookaburra, a cockatoo and a kangaroo.

“The kids all love the animals,” Barb said. “It is amazing.”

Quaama students Stevie Whitby and Velvet Ventura carved the trunk with 50 students at a Sapphire Coast Learning Community art camp. Both girls were involved in the evacuation during the fires and lived with fear and disruption for weeks.

They worked under the guidance of Wolumla Public School principal Peter Claxton, who began his career as an aide at Quaama.

Peter delighted everyone by returning the carving to the school, completing a circle and proving craft trumps calamity.

Carved tree

The charred trunk is now carved with the date of the New Year’s Eve bushfire that swept through Quaama in 2019. Photo: NSW Education.

“It tells a story and everyone who has been affected by the fires has carved it,” Velvet, in year 4, said.

Stevie, who is in year 5, said: “It has a memory that comes with it. It’s not just a plain old tree.”

Barb lives on a small farm near the school. She lost two beloved old ponies in the fire, her home and farm buildings were damaged and livestock yards and fencing destroyed.

Peter returned to help the village.

“We dragged the tree down the paddock and Pete said, ‘Barb, I want that tree’,” she said. “He was already thinking about what he could do for the community.

“He wanted it to come back to Quaama.

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“Pete is an amazing teacher and always thinking about our community.”

Pete worked with the Arts Unit to support students after the bushfires.

“We decided to hold a creative arts camp so students from all communities within the Sapphire Coast Learning Community might get a chance to find some joy in creativity after being affected by so much loss and destruction,” he said.

“This is where the carving began its journey, and there is a small part of everyone’s story who attended that camp etched into it.”


Hours of work went into creating a possum, a cockatoo, a kangaroo, a wombat and a kookaburra on the fallen tree, which now stands on the Quaama Public School verandah. Photo: NSW Education.

Incoming Quaama Public School principal Daniel Roe was packing in Broken Hill for his new role when he learned fire had struck the village.

“The school was saved, but was significantly damaged,” he said. “The grounds were singed and burned, the laser light roofing burned, almost all the grass, playground equipment and landscaping.”

Daniel said the carving helped children process the fires.

“We had seven families out of 30 lose everything,” he said. “Everyone lost sheds, fences, motorbikes, pets, livestock.

“Kids lost their holidays, they spent it in evacuation centres. Some were evacuated four times.

Charred trunk

The charred trunk. Photo: NSW Education.

“Even though there were challenging and scary experiences, we have this sculpture that reminds us of what a lovely and vibrant community we live in.

“Living through the aftermath has emphasised how well small communities support each other, long term. I have noticed how long the support has continued and how close people continue to be.

“Gifts like this emphasise how small communities can bounce back even though tragic things happen.

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“It has been a wonderful experience to be sitting in a school which has overcome so much adversity and challenges to be a really calm, peaceful and productive environment.

“It would be easy to see families go under and teachers want to get out, but we are all still here.”

He said Barb lived in caravans and tents after the fire.

“She is a battler from the bush who loves her community and school, and who will do anything to make sure the kids have what they need.”

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