The Black Saturday bushfires cost 173 lives and left thousands of people homeless, but some in Victoria's art community are drawing inspiration from disaster.
Bryony Jones

6 Feb 2010 - 9:20 AM  UPDATED 23 Aug 2013 - 2:09 PM

Ursula Theinert spent much of February 7 last year battling to save her Callignee home, fighting the flames alongside her husband Werner.

Reduced to filling buckets from an outdoor spa pool as smoke and ash filled their mud-brick house, the pair miraculously stopped the Churchill fire - which killed 11 people - from claiming the building.

But they had to watch, helpless, as their neighbour's home exploded in flames before their eyes "like a match, woof", and the bushfire claimed their treasured studio.

As February 8 dawned, the Theinerts considered themselves among the lucky ones - they had, after all, survived - albeit without a single paintbrush to their name.

Studio destroyed in bushfire

"Everything was destroyed, our studio was destroyed, I didn't have a paintbrush, or anything, and we were in shock for a long time," explains Ursula.

"We had to get to a certain level of control, I suppose, before we could even think about art."

They also had to restock - and for that they have many people - including some anonymous donors - to thank.

"The kindness of people has been absolutely amazing, from family and friends and loved ones, but also from total strangers.

"Somebody found out through someone else about me losing everything, and then I got a parcel in the mail with some paintbrushes - I didn't even know the person.

For her husband Werner, the creative process began as the fire was still smouldering.

Creativity from destruction

"In the early hours of the morning, as the dawn came, he took his camera and took hundreds of photographs of the destruction: the garages, our home, our garden, everything," she says.

"He's based his work on those photographs. He's taken something destructive and created something out of that - made it a positive."

For Ursula, the return to art took a little longer, but eventually, she says, "you start to feel healed enough to start painting".

And the creative journey she has been on ever since has helped her deal with the emotions sparked by the Black Saturday fires.

"If you look at my work it really is like seeing someone going through the grieving process...

Artwork 'like a funeral'

"I was trying to get all my emotions out, my anger out, my fear out.

"I think in a way it was like a funeral, in the sense it was a coming to terms with the reality of it, and an acceptance of it."

After Ashes to Ashes, her first work after the blaze, Ursula turned to her conviction that somone - or something - had been watching over them as the fires raged.

"We knew there were several times that we could have died, but we didn't, and so again it was coming to terms with the miracle of surviving something.

"Fire Angels tried to express that sense of a presence, an other-ness there that guided us, that whispered to us, that showed us, that kept vigil over us."

Signs of hope, renewal

A year after the fires that nearly took her home and her life, Ursula is looking forward.

"As the bush is regenerating, so are we, in a way.

"My latest piece, Metamorphosis, is about the trees, the way they look at the moment is alien, because they are the opposite to what a normal tree is, where you only have leaves on the tips of the branches.

"Looking out of my window now, I can see a tree that has almost a woolly fur coat going up it, and the very tips have nothing.

"It's a very strange tree, but at the same time it's a sign of hope, of renewal."

Listen to Ursula talking about her work, and see her paintings