Devastated artists pull together for flood recovery

When acclaimed Aboriginal artist Digby Moran opened the door to his studio a fortnight ago, he found more than 80 of his paintings floating in stagnant water.

Many of the wooden frames were buckled and the canvases shredded. All of them were covered in a thick film of pungent mud.

"I had to walk away from it, I was that upset, I couldn't handle it," Mr Moran said.

"I told my friends to leave me alone and I took a knife and ran the knife through some of them that couldn't be saved."

Mr Moran's studio had been completely submerged by floodwaters in the northern New South Wales city of Lismore.

And, like many local business owners, Mr Moran was uninsured.

He lost artworks and equipment worth thousands of dollars and is still figuring out how he will cope.

"I just get that depressed with it, it's knocked me right around.

A lot of work went into them and a lot of my stories and dreaming."

Extensive devastation

The Northern Rivers region of New South Wales is home to the highest concentration of arts and creative industries practitioners outside of metropolitan centres Australia-wide.

The floods that inundated the region on March 31 and April 1 not only damaged individual artists' homes and businesses, but also caused extensive damage to arts organisations including the headquarters of regional theatre company Northern Rivers Performing Arts (NORPA) and the Northern Rivers Conservatorium in Lismore.

NORPA general manager Patrick Healey said they had a damage bill of about $300,000 and they had to cancel all shows until May 12.

"We were affected severely on our first floor level where our studio and rehearsal spaces are, our venue hire spaces, our administration and box office and also our dressing rooms and greenroom were flooded," he said.

"We do have insurance but that's a vexed question and we're going through the process of making an insurance claim and seeing how that works out."

Artists pulling together

Numerous fundraising campaigns have been established to help Northern Rivers artists and the wider community, including crowdfunding by Arts Northern Rivers, the Northern Rivers Conservatorium and the Australian Cultural Fund.

Many artists are also pooling their talents to stage workshops, exhibitions and concerts to raise money for flood victims.

Brunswick Heads-based musician Ilona Harker has started the Rise Above the Flood group with the aim of staging a concert in Byron Bay on May 12.

Armed with buckets and gumboots, Ms Harker and a team of volunteers also collected donations at the recent Byron Bay Blues Fest, but it was a generous offering from one of the headline acts that brought her to tears.

Punk rock icon Patti Smith gave them $10,000.

"Patti Smith was the only reason I was going to the Blues Fest, I'm such a huge fan," Ms Harker said.

"I did the chin-wobbly thing and started crying because I was so exhausted at the point I found out and it was such an extraordinary moment.

"The fact that she really cares, she always says use your voice and she put her money where her mouth was."

Art for healing

Artists are also giving their time to help flood victims recover through the process of creating.

An Artists Recovery Community Hub has been set up at the defunct Lismore train station where free creative workshops for flood victims are being run by professional artists.

Co-ordinator Sunita Bala, from Real Artworks, said artists who had lost everything were still finding the time to give back.

"I've seen artists from South Lismore whose spaces were demolished but they're here helping other people and the best way they can do that is by using their passions, skills and by making art," she said.

"People are still cleaning and processing what's going on, but art transcends where words fail us.

"I just spoke to a woman who had a canvas that was so textured with dark colours and it looked like rushing water and she said 'that's the shit I saw when my house went under,' and it's the first time she's been able to express that."