Showcasing art and renewal in Batlow

Robyn Sweeney with her gilded ‘tree hugger’ cape at the exhibition in B: Atelier.

Batlow artist Robyn Veneer-Sweeney is a gilder by trade, and has drawn on some of the ancient lessons of Japanese culture to piece together her experience of the fires, running a social media page and opening a new gallery.

Starting with her ‘Containment Lines’ art installation at the Pilot Hill arboretum, Ms Veneer-Sweeney employed the use of ‘kintsugi’ to express her feelings about the fires themselves and the impact they’ve had on the community.

“I’ve gilded giant domes, so anything to do with gilding [interests me],” she said, “Which is usually what the Japanese do, they repair broken things with gold leaf, so I’ve known about kintsugi for a long, long time, because it’s a way another culture uses gold leaf.”

Ms Veneer-Sweeney has painted golden lines around the centres of the trees at the arboretum, symbolising both the brokenness which the town of Batlow experienced during the Dunns Road fire, as well as the process of being made whole again, and the promise of greater beauty and hope to come.

“I know the fire’s been really tragic for a lot of people and they’ve lost a lot, but I also think the fires have given us ground for new growth and new ideas and new things to happen,” she said.

“For rebirth, really.”

During the fires, Ms Veneer-Sweeney evacuated to Tumut with her family. She was encouraged by Batlow paramedic Max Gordon-Hall (who was in Japan at the time) to start a Facebook page to keep everyone informed. She agreed and spoke to local officials to ensure she’d only be sharing the most relevant and accurate information.

The ‘Dunns Road Fire Emergency’ page eventually attracted 13,500 followers. Ms Veneer-Sweeney didn’t anticipate the trouble that page would eventually bring, becoming more confronting in her own life than the fires themselves.

“I was a very sensitive person before that and I grew about three inches of thick skin,” she said.

Conspiracy theories about the fire grew on that Facebook page, starting originally as small, unconnected suggestions, but eventually growing into one large, sinister plot, which claimed Ms Veneer-Sweeney was at its centre. 

Ms Veneer-Sweeney said she was shocked, evacuated and staying in a cattery in Tumut, hammering away on her laptop, trying to keep up with the false claims and personal threats she was receiving. She wanted to give it up, but her son convinced her it was important enough to keep it active through the end of January.

“It was exhausting,” she said.

“You’ve got this intense state of anxiety, feelings in the community were so high, there was a lot of anger, there was a lot of distress, and some people choose to react to that by being angry, by accusing, by inventing scenarios.

“On social media, they get their own momentum and people just get carried away with it. Social media is fabulous for conspiracy theories for that very reason, and this is what happened. It was only a very small number of people who were being abusive and not using the page in the way it was intended and just a small number of people like that can really hijack a huge number of people who really just want to use it as a way of getting information.”

At the end of January, Ms Veneer-Sweeney archived the page, content that the page had served its function and tired of the accusations. 

“Suddenly, I’m doing ‘this’ and I’m doing ‘that’ and I’ve been in touch with this person with the police and got this person thrown out of town, and I’m thinking ‘I haven’t done any of this, I’m sitting up in the cattery minding my own business trying to run this page and keep this page on the straight and narrow,’ and it just got totally out of hand.”

Just like the forests which were burnt by the fires and are now regrowing, Ms Veneer-Sweeney said she’s had her own experience of coming out the other side stronger and ready for new growth.

The ‘Containment Lines’ installation is a temporary artwork, part of the 50-day Arbour Festival being held around the Snowy Valleys to commemorate the full one year anniversary of the Dunns Road fire.

Ms Veneer-Sweeney was touching up her artwork in the arboretum recently when she got to speak to a visiting Japanese family.

“I said to them jokingly – on the tree where there’s no gold and you get the spaces [on the bark] between the gold bits and the gold is going to fall off over time with the weather – as it falls off, you get wabi-sabi, which is the [concept] of beauty in decay!” 

Ms Veneer-Sweeney said the family was thrilled with the way the two Japanese themes had been used and sent her a message after their visit, thanking her for her work.

“It was so nice for the work to really resonate with someone who’s from that culture where that idea arose. I felt like it validated the work,” she said.

As part of Ms Veneer-Sweeney’s personal renewal, she has opened a new studio/gallery in Batlow’s main street, named B: Atelier.

Pronounced ‘Bat-el-ee-ay’, the word combines a ‘B’ for Batlow with the French word for ‘workshop’. The gallery is currently hosting an exhibition titled ‘In Us Are The Woods’, showcasing work from the Snowy Valleys and as far away as Ireland.

The gallery will continue to host exhibitions, with a strong focus on supporting local artists. The next exhibition will include the works of local artist Marija Zrno who recently passed away. Proceeds from the sale of any artworks will go to the Garvan Institute which cared for Ms Zrno during her cancer treatment, in line with the artist’s final wishes.

The gallery is open 10am-3pm on Fridays and 11am-3pm on weekends. Ms Veneer-Sweeney said she’s hopeful the gallery will help to capture some of the tourist traffic moving through town, directing them on to other local sights and shops. 

She’s also grateful to her landlord, Paul Holton, for making the space available as both a studio and gallery.