When the fires hit Eden in 2020, Sue Norman and her partner were about as prepared as they could be. They’d built a bunker underneath the house at Kiah and installed a spray system.
“When my partner came out of the bunker, the house was still there,” Sue said. “But it was very wet – the tank that had supplied the water had melted.”
What was also destroyed was about 40 years of her life’s work as a visual artist – her studio was burnt to the ground.
Like so many others, the event traumatised Sue. Living on the edge of a national park, surrounded by forest – “the total devastation was really what got to me”, she said.
About 18 months after the fires, Sue started seeing trauma counsellor Colleen Weir, who had come up from Melbourne to work with people who had lived though the Eden fires.
Working with Colleen, Sue said she started to understand more about trauma and how to deal with it.
“What she taught me was fantastic, it made so much sense. If I had understood more about trauma at the time, I probably would have handled it better.
“As a visual artist and someone who has worked in radio, Colleen and I decided to work together on a book, Nye on the River of Life, to explain what happens in the brain when there is trauma – importantly, that it is nothing to be ashamed of.”
In November 2022, Canberra’s award-winning Rebus Theatre led Project Alchemy, the first of two residencies for artists to heal their own trauma from the Black Summer fires and to develop skills to further an arts-led economic recovery.
Project Alchemy has involved the Bega Valley, Eurobodalla Shire, Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council and the ACT with three artists selected from each region. Manager Helen Ferguson said following on from the second residency in early 2023, Alchemy artists had developed organisational, artistic and leadership skills by working on projects individually and in collaboration with others. Their projects were diverse, ranging from music to dance, visual art to poetry.
The book Nye on the River of Life will be available for free at a special exhibition in Queanbeyan which opens on 24 February – Alchemy. It is the coming together of the 15 Project Alchemy artists who have worked for the past year on a series of cross-disciplinary arts projects to build community connection across southeast Australia.
“This rich, multimedia exhibition will showcase the artists’ personal journeys as well as their collaborative work and reach to their own communities. It will leave you touched with the profound difference that Project Alchemy has brought about for the artists as well as the hundreds of participants in the communities they have worked in,” Ms Ferguson said.
Project Alchemy opens at the Queanbeyan Hive Gallery, 274 Crawford Street, Queanbeyan, on Saturday 27 February and runs until Sunday, 17 March. The exhibition is free.