A story from Cobargo in New South Wales, reflecting life in August 2020
“We lost five sheds, our friend’s tiny house and our son’s place,” explained Gabrielle Powell.
Gabrielle and her husband Daniel Lafferty are artists who have lived in Cobargo, on the NSW south coast for 30 years.
During the Black Summer bushfires, they had a difficult decision to make. They live on a long, skinny, 20 -acre block with their house on the top of the hill and their sheds a five-minute walk away. In the middle was their friend’s tiny home and at the other end of the property was their studio, garage and son’s place.
“So, we had to make the decision which area were we going to defend. My plan was to leave the property but Daniel needed my support to fight the fire at 4am on New Year’s Eve,” said Gabrielle.
“We lost thirty years of studio, our collection of pottery tools and equipment, my kiln, our international pottery collection, $15,000 worth of stock and all our books. Our garage was down there so all our power and hand tools, all our machinery was also lost.”
Daniel is a well-known potter. He and Gabrielle have hosted international ceramic conferences, workshops, and exhibitions.
“Daniel is a wood firer so his process is to make his own clay, dig the clay from our land, cut down the black wattle trees which are a bit of a weed on our property, and fire a large anagama kiln for five days 24/7. Daniel uses the black wattle ash at high temperatures to form a glaze on his pieces. He is internationally renowned for his work,” she said.
After the bushfires, Daniel found out that the Australian National Museum was holding a Black Summer exhibition so he contacted the Museum to see whether they would be interested in a few of his pieces – a small collection of his work was accepted. The Museum had already taken the melted telephone box out of Cobargo’s main street.
Gabrielle also studied at art school but after having children she studied community welfare and has been working part time for the Red Cross as a youth worker. She took up basket making in 2005 and in 2019 started getting back into ceramics and running her own little business.
“Our home and contents insurance didn’t cover anything to do with our pottery businesses. As artists you think you have a creative home-based hobby – it’s a lifestyle. If we had paid employment, we would do that and if not, we would make creative pieces. In our minds, it is hard to think of it as a business,” explained Gabrielle.
“It was just our creative life.”
When they contacted their insurance company, they were told they should apply for a $10,000 small business grant, which is jointly funded by the Australian and NSW governments and has helped more than 18,700 business across NSW since the fires.
“So, I applied for the business grant, and got that. The money will help replace our equipment and kiln sheds. It was quite straight forward and easy to get,” she said.
They also received the $1,000 Disaster Recovery Payment, but had to apply twice before being found eligible.
Gabrielle hasn’t worked much since the fires – first she was struggling with the aftermath of the disaster, then Covid-19 hit just when she was needed around the property to help Daniel get things back in order. Gabrielle visited her GP in January after the fires and he referred her to a mental health trauma practitioner who she still sees.
“I used to be a very organized person but now I am a bit muddled.”
When asked if she thought the specialist was helping, she said, “I think so, it’s a process of accepting things have changed forever.”
Eight months on, the rebuilding of a sheds is nearly finished, and she should be able to fire her pots by the end of the year with the help of someone who donated an electric kiln.
For Daniel, unfortunately it is a bigger process. He has a lot more things on his plate like fitting out the sheds, repairing kilns, installing water tanks, fencing, and fixing roads before he can get back to work.
“I think it could be the middle of next year for him,” said Gabrielle.