Materials salvaged from Border Fire crafted into award-winning sculpture by Kiah artist Jesse Graham

RISING UP: Jesse Graham with a sculpted phoenix, one part of his award-winning '2020 Vision' artwork which was crafted from salvaged materials from homes lost to the Border Fire in January 2020. Photo: Leah Szanto
RISING UP: Jesse Graham with a sculpted phoenix, one part of his award-winning '2020 Vision' artwork which was crafted from salvaged materials from homes lost to the Border Fire in January 2020. Photo: Leah Szanto

Blackened remnants of homes lost to the Border Fire have become crucial elements of an award-winning sculpture by Kiah resident Jesse Graham.

The highly regarded artist and his wife Jo tragically lost their historic home at the hands of the fire, an experience that has informed and inspired his work.

Jesse exhibited his emotive artwork '2020 Vision' at Lake Light Sculpture, an annual competition held on the foreshore of Lake Jindabyne, and was thrilled to win the People's Choice award, having taken out the major prize in previous years.

Included in the 6-metre long and 3-metre high artwork were parts of neighbouring houses, donated by various friends and neighbours, as well as Jesse's own sculptures which were in his house during the blaze.

"Originally I was worried the work might be too impacting on a lot of locals, so I tried to make it positive by incorporating a phoenix at the end of the flames, that looked like it was coming out of the ashes," Jesse said.

"It got quite mixed emotions up at the lake, I saw some people trying to make sense of it, and others crying."

'2020 Vision' was the clear winner for the People's Choice Award at Lake Light Sculpture. Photo: Bill Prowse

'2020 Vision' was the clear winner for the People's Choice Award at Lake Light Sculpture. Photo: Bill Prowse

When on display in Jindabyne, '2020 Vision' was bordered by melted witches hats which Jesse retrieved from the Princes Highway outside the Kiah Store.

Burnt and melted pieces of metal became the armature or skeleton of the sculpture, and copper, bronze, and steel sheets were incorporated using various welding techniques.

Half-melted bolt cutters, a jerry can, unrecognisable car parts and other household items were all repurposed as the sculpture took shape.

"Making use of the endless old sculptures that had melted throughout the house was satisfying, rather than seeing them pushed in to landfill and having all that work wasted," Jesse said.

"When the house burnt down and I was fossicking through the ruins, I was immediately identifying things I could use in artworks."

Illuminated at night, the fire and all its parts were brought back to life, with the many different tones of reworked metal lit up, a striking glowing form. Photo: Jonathan Kugler

Illuminated at night, the fire and all its parts were brought back to life, with the many different tones of reworked metal lit up, a striking glowing form. Photo: Jonathan Kugler

Two Ned Kelly sculptures that had been damaged feature in the sculpture, one of which was a previous winner of Lake Light.

"Of all the sculptures I have done, it was the most difficult work. Because I work predominantly in metal, unlike stone or other materials I have a fair amount of leeway to bend it and shape it the way I want to," Jesse said.

"I thought, 'how hard can flames be to make?', but it turned out to be crazy-making. I had to manipulate the metal hundreds of times to make it look right.

"It took me about three months to construct, not including the 20 years of previous works included in it."

Jesse Graham on his property at Kiah, with one section of the currently disassembled sculpture. Photo: Leah Szanto

Jesse Graham on his property at Kiah, with one section of the currently disassembled sculpture. Photo: Leah Szanto

Illumination is a defining element of Lake Light, with exhibited sculptures lit from sunset to 10pm each evening, artists having embedded lighting, reflection and optical tricks into their works to play on the light of Easter's full moon.

This creates a dramatic effect, transforming the sculptures and revealing hidden elements. In the case of '2020 Vision', the fire and all its parts were brought back to life, with the many different tones of reworked metal lit up, a striking glowing form.

Jesse got halfway through making '2020 Vision' and worried he was running out of materials. At that moment, his neighbour Clare McMahon, who he jokingly referred to as the local clairvoyant, phoned him.

"She asked me if I needed any burnt metal as she was trying to save it from being scrapped. This is not the first time Clare has come down from heaven to save me," Jesse said with a smile.

Part of an old sculpture called 'Strike it Rich' which Jesse has reworked into '2020 Vision'. Photo: Leah Szanto

Part of an old sculpture called 'Strike it Rich' which Jesse has reworked into '2020 Vision'. Photo: Leah Szanto

Currently disassembled, there are plans for '2020 Vision' to be installed at the Kiah Store, pending landlord approval, before being included in the Sculpture for Clyde near Batemans Bay in August, a $50,000 acquisitive prize.

The annual sculpture event has an expanding permanent sculpture walk on the shores of the Clyde River where Jesse already has two works installed.

"People often wonder if I am being a man's man, being tough," Jesse said.

"By building the sculpture I was processing the fires and what we went through in my own way.

"Seeing my wife's reaction and others' responses while I was constructing it, brought me to realise that although I otherwise felt fine, subconsciously, creating the sculpture was probably helping me heal."

'2020 Vision' on display at Lake Light Sculpture 2021 in Jindabyne. Photo: Bill Prowse

'2020 Vision' on display at Lake Light Sculpture 2021 in Jindabyne. Photo: Bill Prowse

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