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Lismore is still here

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25 May 2023

In the wake of unprecedented flooding, images of a sculpture of two hands holding a red heart above flood waters went viral. The artists behind the sculpture, Holly Ahern and her partner Eden Crawford-Harriman, never imagined their work would become a symbol of hope for a town in despair.

With the Lismore arts community devastated, the pair launched a fundraiser selling t-shirts featuring images of the In the Heart sculpture. They raised tens of thousands of dollars in just two days.

Sitting inside her home at Lismore Heights in late February, watching the waters recede, Holly had expected flood levels to be on par with 2017’s 11.59 metres. As a precaution, she had moved her artwork and equipment a metre above the previous flood level at her studio on Rural Street. In actuality, the February 2022 floodwaters peaked above 14 metres, wiping out a career’s worth of art.

Despite the devastating loss, Holly’s public sculpture, In the Heart – made in collaboration with Eden – was still standing in the Lismore CBD. Photos of the sculpture began to go viral and before she knew it, her work had become larger than life. “It was so beautiful that so many people got behind the sculpture as a symbol of the collective journey through this horrible situation,” said Holly.

The artwork seemed destined to be a marker of hope from the start and represented a turning point in Holly’s career. After completing the Bachelor of Art and Design and then the Bachelor of Arts with Honours at Southern Cross University, Holly reached a low point. Unsure of what to do with her career, she started applying for grants. A simple idea sketched on a post-it note soon became a project larger than Holly ever imagined.

Holly and Eden submitted plans for a small multimedia sign to be hung in the Lismore CBD. The concept was to create a two-dimensional neon sign with two hands and a heart that would flash ‘you are here’ when activated by a motion sensor nearby. “The panel liked our idea so much that they had the trust in us to make it bigger and turn it into a 3D object,” Holly said. “It was sort of this moment of being like, okay, so we are going to make something big.”

Holly was studying fashion design at the time and made the decision to leave the course and to pursue this opportunity in art.

The aftermath of the floods

Following the flood events in February and March, many local artists lost both their homes and their studios. Holly and Eden decided they wanted to help. Holly used the In the Heart sculpture to design a t-shirt which read ‘We are still here. Lismore, NSW’ and featured the sculpture hands holding the You Are Here heart above flood waters. They also started a fundraiser selling the t-shirts to raise money for local flood-affected artists.

“We were expecting to make $500 but within 48 hours our PayPal froze and we were trying to prove that we weren’t a scam. It was this crazy moment because we raised $20,000 in such a short period of time.

“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 event with the hopes of populating Lismore’s CBD with local artists’ works.

“I think to be able to reactivate the CBD through an event like this will be really beautiful,” Holly said. Despite the achievements of the fundraiser, living through a natural disaster has had a lasting impact. Holly has made changes to the way she organises her studio space, including keeping any artworks or equipment not in use in storage. She has also implemented a flood plan.

“We can’t be complacent anymore because there is no pretending that it’s not going to happen again.

“I’m coming to terms with the fact that I lost 10 years of my practice, and that is 10 years of artworks and 10 years of research that is just gone. So, that has been really hard. I haven’t started making art again yet and it’s been seven months.

“I keep saying to Eden, I think maybe in four years I’ll be able to put this experience into better words about what this actually meant to us. But right now, I think we’re still going through the motions of processing what happened. And I’m so happy that the sculpture survived. I’m so happy that it became this symbol.”

Holly is 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. It was 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 Lismore’s future, which is really exciting.

After having taken some time out to reset, Holly is now putting that abandoned fashion design course to use. “So, I just made the biggest purchase of my life,” she laughed. “I’ve bought an industrial sewing machine which is really exciting.”

“I’m hoping this is the push I need to get making again. I think there’s a really important need for me to step back and just enjoy making art again.”