Using art to voice emotions still smouldering after bushfire

The emotional landscape after trauma is very often filled with complex topography: steep valleys of anger and mires of grief, combined with peaks of elation, often with clear views over the ground you've trodden.

Quite likely for many in the Nambucca Valley who were shaken by last year's bushfires, much of that landscape is still uncharted territory.

An Australian study published in 2014 found that three years on from Victoria's Black Saturday Bushfires, 15 per cent of affected people surveyed suffered from probable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"Our research with the University of Melbourne on the Black Saturday Bushfires found that after five years, 21 percent of the population were still experiencing serious mental health issues," Australian Red Cross' National Resilience Adviser John Richardson said.

Art practitioner Nancy Sposato believes that one of the roadblocks to healing is a cultural dearth of self-awareness and an inability to express complex emotions.

"It often takes time to figure out what our niggles are," she said.

"Sometimes we need to train ourselves to read and understand physical signals. I don't think our culture supports that very well."

Alice Payne Photography

Alice Payne Photography

Over the past year, Nancy has co-conducted three art-led bushfire recovery workshops in the Nambucca Valley which have aimed to encourage the 45-or-so participants to check in with themselves, and explore non-verbal creative avenues to process and communicate their experiences.

"After the fires there was an outpouring of people wanting to help - this is what I had to offer," she said.

"I thought, if art-making has helped me, it just might help you."

The workshops were funded by Nambucca Valley Council and were facilitated by Nancy and creative arts therapist, Marg Coutts.

Participants were welcomed to country before being guided through a series of activities, starting with breath awareness.

Alice Payne Photography

Alice Payne Photography

They were then asked to make marks with white chalk or black charcoal on paper. Eventually a limited palette of colours was introduced - first fiery oranges and reds, then eventually the cooling greens of hope and new life.

"There was no right and no wrong - it was just about allowing their creative instincts to flow," Nancy said.

She said there was an interesting discovery at the Utungun workshop when one woman became "quite frustrated" that there was no blue to use.

"She couldn't understand why, but she needed blue," Nancy said.

The breakthrough moment came when the woman realised that what she was really longing for was water, and afterwards decided to book a holiday beside the ocean to continue her healing journey.

The drawings were communal creations; any person was allowed to add to them.

"Some people were frustrated by that. What I've learnt is that bushfire recovery is really complex - there are going to be group conflicts and flare-ups. But art is a great way to move through that, and to be able to see things from others' perspectives," Nancy said.

These 'mark-making' sessions were interspersed with stream of consciousness journaling, before a final debrief session and a shared lunch.

Alice Payne Photography

Alice Payne Photography

Much of the day was conducted in silence.

"That allowed it to be a really reflective, almost sacred space. It takes courage to do what they were doing, and we were honouring that with silence," Nancy said.

Peter McGrath has a psychology background and was a participant in the Taylors Arm workshop in October.

Peter McGrath 'Dhirendra'

Peter McGrath 'Dhirendra'

"We weren't caught in the middle of the fire at our place in Newee Creek, but we did evacuate on one dire day," he said.

"The southern horizon was red and the howling southerly was roaring towards us - we would have been burnt out if it kept coming.

It was a complete existential shake-up.

"Having had that little taste, I can't imagine what it was like to have been living west of Bowraville. You'd live with that for the rest of your life, I think.

"And I was surprised at how much emotional heat was still in that group of people - anger, grief - still right there on the surface.

"The workshop was never going to 'fix it'. But it was carefully choreographed, from the gradual introduction of colours, to the supported group debrief.

Alice Payne Photography

Alice Payne Photography

"Giving people the opportunity to come together in a safe environment and offering them a non-verbal language to be able to share their experiences - that's the key to it. Words can often seem petty, but when you splash a lot of red and black around you can feel it.

It's not in our culture to share emotional experiences - this is a foreign landscape to be introducing into a self-sufficient culture. But in my mind the worst kind of trauma is the one you can't share.

Alice Payne Photography

Alice Payne Photography

Peter said he experienced a profound moment of catharsis from a surprising source.

"There were a couple of young girls there with their mum, and one of them held up a little rainbow she'd drawn over which she'd written 'be happy'. It was like a bolt of lightning for me - a real moment of genius. We all really needed that little ray of light," he said.

Nancy said she intends to continue this work in the Nambucca Valley.

"The message I got through the workshops is that a lot of people still feel unheard," she said.

She also has an idea to submit the Nambucca Valley's paintings to the National Gallery of Australia: "Through that artwork, the Valley's story is told."

If you would like to connect with Nancy or the Blackbird Creative Recovery Project, you can do so through the Facebook page or via their Instagram handle: @black_bird_creative_recovery