After unprecedented flooding in February 2022 devastated the Northern Rivers, local artist Holly Ahern is using fundraising efforts to bring Lismore’s CBD back to life through public and community art. 

Holly describes herself as a multidisciplinary artist with an interest in textiles, painting, and large-scale sculptural works. She and her partner Eden Crawford-Harriman are the creative minds behind the ‘In the Heart’ sculpture which resides in the Lismore CBD.  

Following severe flooding in Lismore, images of the two hands holding a red heart above floodwaters went viral and Holly suddenly found herself in the limelight.  

“It was so beautiful that the community supported our sculpture as a symbol of hope during the collective journey of this horrible situation,” said Holly. 

The flood events in February and March caused many artists in the Northern Rivers to lose both their homes and their studios. While Holly and Eden were no exception – losing ten years’ worth of work when their studio at Elevator ARI in Lismore’s CBD flooded – they decided they wanted to help. Holly used the In the Heart sculpture as inspiration for a t-shirt design that read ‘We are still here. Lismore, NSW’ and featured the sculpture hands holding the You Are Here heart above flood waters. They started a fundraiser selling the t-shirts to raise money for local flood-affected artists.  

“We were expecting to make a small amount of funds that could be transferred directly into the campaigns of affected artists within the region. But within 48 hours, we had raised $20,000, and had to quickly halt any more sales from our site. We weren’t sure if we had the capacity to organise that many orders while recovering from the flood ourselves.”  

“Fifteen hundred people shared a tile of the fundraiser on Instagram. It was mind-blowing that people were wanting to purchase our t-shirt for fundraising efforts.” 

With the support of Arts Northern Rivers, the money will be used to pay flood-affected artists to facilitate a small-scale community event with the hopes of populating Lismore’s CBD with local artists’ works in 2023.   

“I think to be able to reactivate the CBD through an event like this will be really reaffirming of the importance of art and artists within our community,” Holly said.  

Holly studied the Bachelor of Art and Design and the Bachelor of Arts with Honours at Southern Cross University. She originally spent a few years studying Forensic Science but realised that the arts industry was where she needed to be.  

“Studying art was a good testing ground. I wanted to be involved in each of the studios and refrained from choosing a singular discipline during my undergraduate degree,” Holly said. “Focusing on multidisciplinary modes of production assisted in the development of my practice.” 

Holly is now optimistic that the outpouring of love for the In the Heart sculpture will change community attitudes towards public art.  

“I’m hoping that our work has really changed people’s views on public art. The Northern Rivers has experienced a bad run with public artworks in previous years, including Byron Bay’s ‘disco dong’ that was removed within months of its installation. Our sculpture is something that was instantly able to be engaged with. You can walk up to it, you can touch it, it’s not going anywhere. So, I’m hoping that this helps to set the precedent and creates more openness towards public art in our region's future.” 

Since the In the Heart sculpture, Holly and Eden have developed a major project with Regional Futures that aims to connect regional artists with leaders on sustainability. The project, ‘Is This A Sign?’, involves creating a map of dormant structures around the Northern Rivers and activating them with insights that respond to the theme ‘what does the future look like for your region?’. 

Alongside this project, Holly is the marketing and social media manager for Elevator Artist Run Initiative (ARI), which was inundated by 14 metres of floodwaters.  

Following 4 months of clean-up efforts and the work over 100 volunteers, Elevator ARI has now reopened with new exhibitions and programs, including workshops facilitated by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia based in Sydney.  

“We have become this epicentre for cultural arts programming in Lismore,” said Holly. “Being able to open again with experimental art exhibitions and diverse community events has really shifted the understanding of how important regionally based Artist Run Initiatives are.” 

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