Photograph courtesy of Barbara Joyce.
Today is the Third Anniversary of the Black Saturday Fires. I want to mark the event with a story that has in turn, made me cry and laugh and then marvel at the indomitable human spirit.
The story is set in one of the areas hardest hit by the Black Saturday fires, Strathewen, and involves members of the Strathewen community, knitting needles, a bzillion balls of alpaca yarn, and lots and lots of chooks. The locals know it affectionately as The Chook Project. The story begins with the founder of the project and a resident of Strathewen, Barbara Joyce.
Barbara lost 27 friends and neighbours on Black Saturday. She fled her home only minutes before the firestorm hit. Her studio and her husband’s workshop burnt to the ground. Mercifully their home survived. When she returned to it, she found that radiant heat had cracked the windows and the vicious winds had blown the doors in. Every surface of the inside of her home was covered in a thick layer of soot.
Everything in the house had to be painstakingly cleaned. In that process, Barbara unearthed Cocoa (below), a knitted and felted chook that she had made eight years previously with yarn spun from her neighbour’s chocolate coloured alpaca. Those same neighbours, along with their alpacas had perished in the fires. Barbara set about bringing Cocoa back to life with a wash and new stuffing and took her in a bag to her dear friend’s funeral. Those present were so pleased to see Cocoa that she was passed around for a cuddle, soothing everyone in her own special way during that sad event.
In the next few months, holding that experience close to her heart, Barbara saw a good use for the knitted chook pattern. In the first couple of years, she secured sponsorship for alpaca yarn and wool stuffing and began knitting chooks for the local children. Later, as the project gained momentum, the Strathewen Community Renewal Association funded the materials. Friends got on board and helped with the knitting. A knitting group (of more than twenty women) was established which became a place for sharing grief, laughter and hope for the future. In Barbara’s own words,
“The chooks were an ice-breaker and a way for people to start connecting again. Our conversations would drift from grief to side splitting hilarity. Storytelling would be interrupted by people counting out loud and checking off rows in the pattern.” Quoted from Barbara’s story published in Barefoot Magazine.
In order to personalise the chooks, before the knitting began, each child was given a drawing of the outline of the chook shape and asked to decorate it with whatever colours and patterns they liked.
Not surprisingly some chooks were decorated with flames. Every effort was made to represent the child’s original design accurately. Wool was specially dyed if colours weren’t available commercially, or ’embroidery’ was added if the child’s pattern required it.
NB. The original kntted chook pattern was designed by Bev Galeskas for Fiber Trends©
Today, every primary school aged child in Strathewen has their very own version of Cocoa.
Barbara’s favourite moment was delivering the children’s finished chook and seeing their faces light up as they cuddled their chook close. The chooks took up pride of place in each child’s bed, spreading their special love and warmth while the children slept.
Like The Tree Project, the healing this project has offered throughout the community is outstanding. Whether it was in the designing, the knitting or in the cuddling and warmth of the finished product, it’s provided nourishment for hearts and souls far and wide.
Again, in the beautiful words of Barbara herself,
“This project brought children comfort, nurtured close friendships between the women, fostered connections within the community, assisted the recovery process and reminded us that we could laugh again. I see the hen as an ancient symbol of regeneration and rebirth and when our world turned black, the humble chook found its way into our hearts.” Quoted from Barbara’s story, published in Barefoot Magazine.
Last year, Barbara undertook training in Art Therapy at the Phoenix Institute. She’s obviously a natural. This project is a great example of Art Therapy in action!
Isiiad remembers the people who lost their lives, those who lost their homes and those who still grieve the loss of loved ones today, the Third Anniversary of Black Saturday.
This evening, ABC 1 is screening a documentary titled “Then The Wind Changed”, about the rebuilding of Strathewen after the fires. In it you will see and hear the heart warming stories of families involved in this project and the very special way it has touched the lives of many.
(This documentary is now available on ABC iview.)