'The Gift is from a bad thing but we've turned it into a good thing. It helped us heal. It helped many people heal. It made us cry. It made us laugh' - Wally Spezza, Kinglake West/Pheasant Creek.
In the early months of 2010, Glenn Barlow and Ray Brasser created the Thank You Gift - an important object that now forms part of Museum Victoria's Victorian Bushfires Collection. This object is made entirely from recycled materials salvaged from the bushfire-ravaged landscape of both Ray and Glenn's Kinglake Ranges properties. It not only provides a permanent historical record of Black Saturday, but it also embodies stories of mateship, loss, hope and recovery.
In the lead up to the 'Thank You Melbourne and Victoria' concert of 7 April 2010, it was decided that a physical gift was needed - a token of gratitude that could be publicly gifted to the people of Victoria. Keeping with the theme of the concert - which was for locals of the Kinglake Ranges and surrounding communities to say 'thank you' through music, art and storytelling - the concert organisers asked Glenn Barlow (local woodworker) and Ray Brasser (local blacksmith) to come up with a physical object that expressed their message of thanks. Both Ray and Glenn were significantly affected by the Black Saturday bushfires. Glenn - a Kinglake West Country Fire Authority (CFA) volunteer - had come close to losing his life when the tanker he was fighting from ran out of water, and the crew were forced to retreat to the bush. Ray managed to save his family's Kinglake homestead, but lost the majority of his blacksmithing shed and tools, as well as being devastated by the loss of his sister-in-law Suzanne and her husband Geoff. Working on the sculpture and being involved in the organisation of the concert was something both Glenn and Ray felt strongly about. With Ray's shed in ruins, he set about reconstructing his shed and rebuilding his tool collection.
With a desire to make the sculpture out of local materials, Ray and Glenn looked to the landscape for inspiration. Ray recalls, 'I was driving back from Glenn's place one day and I saw a burnt-out tree. I actually stopped, went back and had a look at this tree and how it was shaped with the hollow in the middle. And it really got me thinking.' He returned to his blacksmithing shed with Glenn and created a metal tree trunk in the image of the tree he had seen. Glenn gathered some burnt Blackwood from his backyard and spun it on the lathe to create a wooden base. He placed a burl (an outgrowth from the trunk of a tree ) on top of the wooden base and burnt the words 'Thank You' into it. With the two separate pieces of metal and wood almost finalised, it was time to merge them together, which was done in Ray's shed over a few beers:
Glenn: 'In order to mount it Ray got it white hot, so it was glowing, and he placed it down on the burl.'
Ray: 'We sat the thing on there and the flames just started trickling around it and grew up.'
Glenn: 'It was quite mesmerising. It lasted four or five minutes and we just stayed there rather silent, watching it.'
As soon as the metal and wood had been fused through the hot flames, the sculpture unexpectedly came to take on a personality and life of its own, with Ray and Glenn immediately giving it a nickname. Other members of the 'Thank You Melbourne and Victoria' organising group soon started to call it by this nickname, take it on outings and take photos of it 'meeting' members of the community. In many ways, this brought people closer together as they shared black humour and laughter, as well as sadness and reflection:
Wally Spezza: 'He came to life when those flames happened. That was his heart beating.'
Ross Buchanan: 'He became part of the team.'
Wally: 'So he had an essence. It wasn't just a gift; it was part of us. It's what remained after the fires physically and its also emotionally part of us.'
Ross: 'He represents all our emotions, happiness and sadness.'
The making of the Thank You Gift is not simply a story about metal, wood and craftsmanship. It's also a story about sadness, laughter, humour, hope and importantly, the efforts of a small handful of bushfire-affected individuals to say 'thank you' to the wider Victorian community. 'I hope that people remember why we made the gift', stated Glenn in September 2010, 'it was our way of saying thank you and it means a lot.'
Private communication between Catherine McLennan, Wally Spezza, Ross Buchanan, Ray Brasser, Glenn Barlow, Jodie Thorneycroft and Mahony Kiely, Kinglake, September 2010 (Private Hands)
Thank You Melbourne and Victoria website, www.thankyoumelbourne.com, viewed 15-11-2010.