Loss and hope: How Lismore’s arts community is recovering from the floods

Feature

When the recent floods first hit Lismore in February, artist Claudie Frock endured a terrifying night. She was lucky to survive after she, her partner and dog were rescued by the SES in a boat, having gradually climbed to higher ground as water bubbled up to their chests. Everything Frock knew was engulfed in the succession of floods: she was left without her home, her studio/gallery and her workplace at Lismore Regional Gallery.

An artist, performer and arts worker in Lismore for more than 20 years, Frock established Arch Studio Gallery a year ago. She had exhibited work from eight emerging artists over the preceding year and had another 10 artists scheduled for exhibitions in the gallery’s program.

“Unfortunately, due to the gallery space flooding twice and currently off limits due to the repairs and rebuild of the Northern Rivers Conservatorium building, where it was located, and the loss of equipment and materials, Arch Studio Gallery is no longer able to function,” Frock says. “Almost all my art materials, artworks, equipment, furniture, important documents, hanging system devices and gallery walls were damaged or destroyed,” Frock explains. “I have been hit hard mentally and emotionally by the absolute devastation that has been wrought on our community.”

Months after the first flooding, Frock is living in a caravan with minimal power in front of her flood-damaged house. A handful of neighbours has returned to the suburb. “Our CBD is still barely functioning with only a few shops open and most places still have no electricity,” she says. “The empty and broken shop fronts are a daily reminder of all we have lost.”

Like colleagues at other local galleries, Frock is trying to nurture herself and others by participating in opportunities connecting people through art. Frock has set herself up with fellow artists in a shared space called Outpost Studio. Through her community engagement work at Lismore Regional Gallery Frock has developed public programs such as The Collage Club, a weekly creative recovery session where people connect and make collages together. Frock is also launching a collaborative drawing project, Slow Draw. “Programs like this are so important at the moment when people have become displaced and isolated from each other as a result of this disaster.”

Artist Megan Cope’s life and work were also upended. Cope is renowned for her recurring interest in the climate emergency, so it was especially wrenching that so much of her work was wrecked by this extreme weather event. “I’ve had to cancel many future projects as I no longer have the equipment, tools, capacity and space to produce them,” says Cope, a Quandamooka woman (North Stradbroke Island). “I’ve been philosophical about it, as my work has been about climate change for the past decade.”

Cope suffered greatly and estimates she’s lost around 20 years’ worth of various items she had collected for her work. “We had to either cancel or come up with a radical solution,” Cope says of her then-forthcoming show, Low Pressure, at Milani Gallery in Brisbane. “We went for the latter and decided to cut all the shells off the sculptures, source new timber and scrub the flood mud off about 3000 oyster shells and re-string on the new poles and delay the show by a week.” Generous people helped this happen by taking bags and buckets of shells home to clean.

The director of Lismore Regional Gallery, Ashleigh Ralph, has been deeply impressed by the way the arts community has sought inventive solutions in the face of such hardship, with everyone facing various forms of loss, followed by insurance claims, housing issues and fears about what happens next. Ralph is carefully investigating how the future of the gallery might manifest.

Ashleigh Ralph, director of Lismore Regional Gallery.

 

Ralph hopes the gallery might reopen in 2023 and is presently considering funding opportunities, pop-up spaces for interim shows, and a possible off-site home for the gallery’s 1300-piece permanent collection. “We need to think about the role of a collecting art gallery on a flood plain,” she says.

However Ralph knows that she’ll have a lot of support in transitioning the gallery into a new era as the city works out how—and where—to operate in this new and challenging era of climate instability. Ralph was certainly astonished at all the support received from local volunteers, who turned up to help save the art collection when the waters first started to rise in February.

“They came from across the region, even people who’d never been to the gallery before. The terrible thing is, those volunteers prioritised the gallery, but didn’t know they were going to lose their homes.” The helpers, who arrived on that rain-soaked Sunday to move everything up to the second level of the two-storey gallery, went home to evacuation warnings.

Next morning, the city was underwater. Ralph saw a video of the gallery, shot from a boat: only the roof was not submerged. By week’s end, the waters receded and more volunteers arrived. Works were sent to conservators in other cities—including the prized Hannah Cabinet (which will be restored and returned to its maker, Geoff Hannah, for further work). Then, more floods came through.

The succession of floods was also devastating for the local artist-run initiative Elevator ARI. Co-director Betty Russ is also contemplating the future while working her way through repairs, insurance issues, and the fight for scarce emergency funding. Russ says the last thing she wants to do now is churn out grant applications—but funds are needed to restore the inundated space.

“I’ve got the creative and emotional capacity of a boiled egg at the moment,” Russ states. “All of us [at Elevator ARI] have had shows we needed to make work for, so we’ve just done it within the options available to us.” Russ explains that while it is hard to imagine the future she feels “a positive trepidation” that Elevator ARI can be revived. “I feel a positive trepidation. But . . . it’s not like we can go and find another building up the hill in the industrial estate because every other business has done that.”

Arch Studio and Gallery
Elevator ARI
Lismore Regional Gallery

Andrew Stephens