In February 2009 I had returned from Europe to commence an artists’ residency at Clifton Pugh’s Dunmoochin in Cottles Bridge. The day after I 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. 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 engage 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 their work – the multifaceted human story that would pound the Blacksmiths’ Tree into shape. Myth was talked up every day and the Tree became something mystical.
By late 2013 The Blacksmiths’ Tree was nearing completion. Numerous amateur and professional film-makers had had a go at documenting its creation. I chipped in to bring some continuity to growing archive of video and stills. With so much footage available I looked into the possibility of pooling this material into a single documentary with a view to completing it with The Tree Project team and the communities that had gathered to support them. I grew to become part of the team, trusted to shoot at both the momentous and intimate closing stages of the project. It would prove to be an enriching, illuminating and emotional undertaking. It would be the most significant and challenging documentary I had made.
On 30 November 2013 The Blacksmiths’ Tree was unveiled at a public event on the Whittlesea Showgrounds. Thousands of people saw the Tree for the first time. It would also be the last time they would view up-close its canopy of 3500 leaves; poems, testimonials, well wishes and the names of those who perished in the fires stamped onto them.
On that day I filmed the complex move from the factory in which it was assembled and the public’s reaction to it. I collected photos and video clips the public had taken and with announcements throughout the day, I met a good many people who not only shared their photos, but told me harrowing stories of escape, loss and grieving – and many did so whilst touching the stainless steel trunk. I’d observed countless people seeking to touch the Blacksmiths’ Tree, reaching out across the safety fence to place their hands onto it.
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 to connect them to each other, irrespective of the differences that may have existed prior to Black Saturday. This is the story we are telling in Forged from Fire.
Andrew Garton 2014