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Recovery through art

Coffs Harbour

A story from Coffs Harbour in NSW, reflecting life in September 2020

“The importance of the arts and creative activities to the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities shouldn’t be underestimated. I’ve seen first-hand the powerful results that bringing people together through community arts activities can have” explained Ashleigh Frost, Programs Facilitator, Museum and Gallery, Coffs Harbour City Council.

Ashleigh designed and facilitated the community-based arts project in association with local primary schools in the Orara Valley, on the NSW north coast, to help young children recover from the devastating Black Summer bushfires.

The Orara Valley and other communities in and around Coffs Harbour area were impacted by the bushfires. In total, 17 houses were lost and seven were damaged, with a large number of outbuildings destroyed and properties impacted.

Local Gumbaynggirr Elder, Uncle Mark Flanders, and Art Therapist, Dr Emma Gentle, worked with local communities in fire-affected areas to facilitate a creative process that enabled primary school aged children to express their needs, aspirations, inspirations, identity and sense of place. The schools involved in the project are Nana Glen, Coramba and Ulong public schools.

“For young people it gives them another way to express themselves that isn’t all about talking. It’s about imagery, and young people learn through imagery before they learn through words. So, for them it is a natural way for them to express themselves,” said Dr Emma Gentle.

“Those children went through a lot of shock and they were grieving for what they had lost and many of them are just now getting over how close they came to having their houses destroyed or even loved ones and pets or animals destroyed,” explained Emma.

Mrs Surinder Kaler, Principal of Ulong Public School, said the project gave her students a platform to open up emotions and to share and learn about their feelings of the devastating effects of the bush fires.

“The students are building their resilience and have come a long way and we are very thankful to be a part of this project,” said Mrs Kaler.

Julie Barker, Principal of Coramba Public School, said she hopes working with an art therapist will allow the children to express their emotions, build resilience and ultimately know that they are safe in the Orara Valley.

Once students have completed their artworks, the project will culminate in an exhibition of over 150 works with the Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery. The exhibition offers the wider community an opportunity to respect and regard the ideas and stories that children put on paper. A selection of works will also be digitized in an online database that houses the Library, Museum and Gallery collections. This way the project will be preserved for future generations and available as a teaching resource within the classroom.

This project was made possible through co-funding by the Australian and NSW governments, under the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements.