In February 2009 I’d returned from Europe to commence an artists residency at Clifton Pugh’s Dunmoochin in Cottles Bridge. The day after I’d arrived in Melbourne the entire north-east was devastated by fire-storms of a magnitude never seen before. With the impact of the fires so severe it would be seven months before I made the move. I would find the Black Saturday Fires had impacted profoundly on the people with whom I would come to know as neighbours and friends.
During the residency I met Amanda Gibson, the courageous and compassionate project lead behind The Blacksmiths Tree. I would hear talk of the complexities of manufacture, the massive stainless steel taper that would require the largest forge in the country, the call outs for volunteers and the women who would learn to weld and join the blacksmiths in their quest to complete the Tree, and the multifaceted human story that pounded it into shape. Myth was talked up every day and the Tree became something mystical.
Sometime in 2013 I picked up my camera and started filming. The Blacksmiths Tree was nearing completion and by this stage numerous amateur and professional film-makers had had a go at documenting its creation. With so much footage available I looked into the possibility of pooling this material and completing the story together with The Tree Project team and the communities that had gathered to support them. It would prove to be an enriching, illuminating and emotional undertaking. It would be the most significant and challenging documentary I will have made. It would be our documentary about our tree. It would be OUR TREE ~ forged from fire.
On 30 November 2013 The Blacksmiths Tree was unveiled at a public event on the Whittlesea Showgrounds. It would be the first time thousands of people would have seen the Tree and the last time they could view its canopy comprised of 3500 leaves, each with messages and the names of those who perished in the fires stamped into them. I was there to film the complex move from the factory in which it was assembled and the public’s reaction to it. I was also there to collect photos and video clips the public had recorded and with announcements throughout the day I met a good many people who not only shared their photos, they told me harrowing stories of escape, loss and grieving – and they did so whilst touching the stainless trunk. I’d observed countless people seeking to touch the Tree, reaching out across the safety fence to place their hands onto it.
Almost all the people I had interviewed I would turn the camera away and off. Their stories so personal, so emotional I chose to listen rather than record. One woman had not been to the area since the fires. She had observed the Tree’s creation on social media and with its completion found herself able to return. She too touched the trunk and in doing so, explained, how she now found peace with the Trees completion and the strength it gave her to return to the region. She had lost her entire family in the fires.
There is a real urge to relate to The Blacksmiths Tree. Volunteers found themselves dedicated to seeing the Tree completed and those following its progress on social media found a means to elevate their hopes beyond grief, beyond suffering, beyond the personal losses so many had and continue to endure.
As The Blacksmiths Tree neared completion it was evident it was having an effect on the wider community, among fire affected individuals and families, that revealed a deeper story, a story where the impossible became possible. The Tree grew to be a symbol for healing, that gave many people the courage to overcome their grief, allowing this unique stainless steel and copper sculpture connect them to each other irrespective of the differences that may have existed prior to Black Saturday. This is the story we are telling through OUR TREE ~ forged from fire.
Andrew Garton 2014