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Pieces of Me

Pieces of Me

Mosaic artist Caitlin Hughes' journey of healing has been facilitated by her artworks created from salvaged materials.

Pieces of Me

Life was good before the fire, to the point that I was almost uneasy. Everything was going well: my art practice, our businesses and our family life. I’d set up my art school and had several exhibitions coming up – everything was in relative balance. We loved our home. It was an unassuming house but we’d made it our own and filled it with art and colour.

The theme of fire had emerged in my work in the previous 12 months. I’d made a sculpture called ‘Spirit Fire’ and a sculptural representation of the Blue Mountains [west of Sydney] titled ‘Moods of the Mountain’, which reflected the extremes of weather in our region. After a smaller fire came through the area, I’d begun a series of work based on bushfire and its effect on the environment. It was like I was somehow in touch with my imminent future. On the day of the fire, the weather was horrendous. It was very dry and windy. I remember saying to my husband, “This is the kind of day that bad things happen.”

Split-second decision

The fire started several kilometres away in a residential street. I was shocked to hear it was heading our way, randomly burning through houses in its path. The fire was upon us within minutes, accompanied by what sounded like explosions. It would swoop up a tree and the crown would just burst into a fireball. It was so very loud and so very hot and you couldn’t breathe; the air was dry and filled with smoke. We ran through the house and were out in three minutes. All we had time to grab were our laptops, hard drives, phones and folder of evacuation documents.

By the time we got in the car, the fire was tearing through the shrubbery between the houses. It was like a monster and all you could do was try to get out; this was not a fightable fire. Our two preschool-aged children were frightened, asking “Mummy, why can’t I breathe properly?” We were shocked at what we saw as we drove out, alarmed by the radiant heat baking through our car. The children asked whether our house was going to burn down. Somehow I still thought it would all be okay. It all felt like a strange and surreal dream.

We sheltered in the carpark of the local shopping centre for about six hours with our neighbours and an abundance of pets. We shared stories and embraced, all standing and watching in disbelief the terrifying sky and its fearsome red-black glow – that was our homes and our beautiful bushland burning. We slept at my parents’ place that night and went back to the house the next day. By then we knew it had gone – almost 200 families lost their homes in that fire – but we needed to see it for ourselves.

The fire had behaved in very inconsistent ways, leaving some areas totally untouched: one end of the outdoor lounge had melted in a pool of plastic, the other end was fine; the plastic toys and buckets in the sandpit were just as we had left them, but areas just metres away were incinerated beyond recognition. Once-valued possessions were now twisted metal, knee-deep ash and strange melted shapes.

With the remains of the house still smouldering, I started obsessively collecting melted mosaic glass from my art practice and pieces of stone. Over the next few days I dug through the ash and rubble and found buckets and buckets of pieces – I didn’t know what I was going to do with it but knew I needed to collect it. I have a real love of the material and was interested to see how things had transformed, how resilient the material was and how it had taken on a new beauty. I also excavated remnants of jewellery – my grandmother’s crystal necklace formed the basis of a significant artwork I later created, titled ‘Lost Tribe’.

In the aftermath

Making art is how I process my world. I luckily didn’t suffer from depression or anxiety after the fire, but I became extremely stressed. Disappearing into my studio calmed me down and enabled me to process what happened through my work. It’s my own personal meditation. For my husband, kayaking on the Hawkesbury River has the same effect. He still does that three mornings a week.

Our children’s level of trauma was high. It has had a big impact on them. They were withdrawn and distressed and, even now, get very upset if they smell smoke from someone’s chimney. There’s some separation anxiety, too – they don’t like to be away from us – and there’s a constant fear of the house burning down again. It might, I tell them, but it’s unlikely. And we’d do it all so much better next time.

Building and growing

We stayed with my parents and friends for the first week, and in a local motel the second. We started with nothing, not even a toothbrush. I didn’t expect to receive any assistance, but soon people just started arriving with suitcases of clothes, toys, books and linen. The national outpouring of generosity towards our community was incredible.

I started making art within a few weeks. We moved into a rental home and I turned the garage into my studio. I was in a small group exhibition a year later and exhibited pieces created from fire-salvaged materials on the theme of cellular trauma and regeneration. When you go through an ordeal, your physiology shifts, your chemical make-up changes. I was exploring the trauma and regeneration that I felt internally as well as what I could see around me in nature and my community.

We’ve rebuilt our house and we’re stronger now as a family, more connected. My art practice has shifted to a new level and I feel that’s come through dealing with uncomfortable and honest content. I’m now working on a new series for an upcoming exhibition on the passages through emotional states. But there’s no red in these works.

Hughes’s work ‘Lost Tribe’, which included pieces of her grandmother’s crystal necklace recovered from the fire.

 

 

 

 

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