Kids Healing Through Art: The Bushfire Recovery Project at Coffs Central

Children have the ability to cut to the heart of matters and express their feelings in raw, honest and powerful ways. ‘Creative Recovery Projects: The Bushfires’ is an immersive exhibition at Coffs Central’s Culture Hub that explores last summer’s catastrophic bushfires through the eyes of students from Orara Valley primary schools. The works provide an extraordinary insight into the hearts and minds of the little people who have processed the traumatic events. Coastbeat’s Louise Lesoa discovered more about this unique display.     

The new Culture Hub recently opened at Coffs Central with the aim of combining arts, community and culture. The space is a partnership between Coffs Central and Coffs Harbour City Council’s Library, Museum and Gallery. The opening exhibition, ‘Creative Recovery Projects: The Bushfires’, acknowledges the experiences had by the children of the bushfire affected Orara Valley and aims to help these children process any emotions felt during this time, as well as provide supportive tools to hopefully aid recovery. The works sit alongside community responses to the bushfires with items from the Museum, and stories from the Libraries. 

A young girl books at an art installation at The Bushfire exhibition at Coffs Central's Creative Hub
“We thought it was just another smoky day and it would be fine…” – Year 6 student

The students’ work is a mix of pencil drawings in orange and red hues that swallow whole houses, trees, cars and animals. There are stark, black stick figures in place of lush green trees. Faces project anger, fear and sadness while bold block letters spell out ‘evacuation’ and smudged black charcoal overshadows the vibrant colour behind. Dioramas provide a backdrop for an explosion of red, yellow and black; symbolic of the chaos felt.

The November Bushfires of 2019

It was roughly this time last year that the Coffs region, like much of the state, watched anxiously as the sky quickly morphed into an ominous shade of orange. Flakes of ash drifted through the sky and landed softly on the palms of outstretched arms. Many people evacuated, not knowing if they would have a home to return to.  The intense uncertainty and fear lingered once the immediate threat passed, but they were feelings that flared once again as the 2020 bushfire season arrived. While adults are able to accept and rationalize such emotions, how do children make sense of the threat? 

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The First of Many Bushfire Recovery Initiatives

Over 150 primary school students took part in the Creative Recovery Project spearheaded by Coffs Harbour City Council’s Regional Gallery and Museum as part of ongoing bushfire recovery initiatives.

“Helping the children of the Orara Valley recover from the bushfires is one of the most important aspects of our bushfire recovery work,” says Coffs Harbour Mayor Councillor Denise Knight.

“There is more than enough evidence available that shows children caught up in traumatic events can carry the scars throughout their lives, so it’s vital they are given the tools to deal with and understand their emotions and responses.”

Ash Frost from the Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery and Uncle Mark  Flanders at the front of the Culture Hub at Coffs Central
LMG Programs Coordinator Ashleigh Frost and Uncle Mark Flanders

The project included a mix of classroom-based activities. Uncle Mark Flanders ran workshops sharing Gumbaynggirr knowledge around fire and culture, while Art Therapist Emma Gentle provided creative art sessions. The result is an exhibition that showcases work made by children from Coramba Primary, Nana Glen Primary and Ulong Public Schools.

Healing Through Art 

The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment states that the 2019-20 bushfires in New South Wales were unprecedented in their extent and intensity. According to the NSW Rural Fire Service, 2439 homes were destroyed in the state alone.

‘The Bushfires’ is an opportunity for children to express their emotions through art in a safe and nurturing environment. The group exhibition allows them to have their feelings both acknowledged and validated by other children who shared the same frightening experiences. 

‘Creative Recovery Projects: The Bushfires’ is on view at Coffs Central’s Culture Hub until Saturday, November 14. 

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