The Ulladulla Gateway sculpture stands as a symbol of resilience after the Black Summer bushfires


When Dora Rögnvaldsdóttir’s world went dark during the black summer bushfires on New Year’s Eve 2019, an idea came to her.

“Everyone was on hot coals. It felt like we were celebrating New Year’s Eve, but we weren’t,” says the sculptor from Nowra, on the south coast of New South Wales. .

Tense and frustrated, she and her family listened to the radio for weather updates.

“We were just waiting for what was going to happen, you know, [with] amber attacks”, says Mrs Rögnvaldsdóttir, whose house would be spared by the flames.

Knowing that everyone on the south coast was going through the same thing, she decided to create something out of that experience.

“When the world went dark, I felt empowered as a sculptor, community artist and educator that I could actually do something that really mattered to others,” Ms. Rögnvaldsdóttir said.

The red and orange tiles represent the embers and the blue tiles represent the wind.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

The result is Gateway.

The newly installed public sculpture in Ulladulla is the largest in the Shoalhaven area, both in size and in attendance, and has been a healing process, not just for Dora but for the hundreds of people who took part in its creation. .

Incorporated into the artwork are more than 1,200 ceramics of native flora and fauna, created in public workshops she facilitated over 14 months.

“After the shock and destruction of the 2019/2020 bushfires, I was driven to bring our community together to create a large-scale commemorative public sculpture,” says Ms Rögnvaldsdóttir, who lives and works in Dharawal Country, Dhurga and Yuin.

A woman smiles in front of a large work of art made up of three separate wave-like sculptures.
Dora Rögnvaldsdóttir with the sculpture Gateway at Ulladulla.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

A house of cards

Ms. Rögnvaldsdóttir first sourced photographs from different communities in the Shoalhaven to incorporate their stories.

The images were then redrawn and cut from locally made steel panels.

A steel panel depicts a person listening to the radio
One of the walkway panels depicts how locals tuned in to hear the news.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

One of the 12 panels is devoted to the ABC.

“This sign is about the person who decided to stay home and defend their home, with a pet and a garden hose,” says Ms Rögnvaldsdóttir.

“The plane [in the sculpture] has the fire retardant and he/she has the ABC transistor radio over there, listening to everything that’s going on.”

The construction of the sculpture took place inside a warehouse.
Gateway in the making.(Facebook: @gatewaysculpture)

Measuring 3.7 meters high and each weighing approximately 350 kilograms, the three towers of Gateway represent the wind.

“They go together like a house of cards, basically,” says Marcus Groom, husband of Ms Rögnvaldsdóttir, who has worked alongside her since the start of the project.

Marcus Groom examines an image etched in steel.
Marcus Groom examines his work at the base of one of the three sculptural elements.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

“After Dora made the first full-size mock-up of the wireframe sculptures, we took measurements and also incorporated them into the AutoCAD model for fabrication and laser cutting of the profiles,” says Groom.

“I did the images for the plasma cut panels at the base of the sculptures by hand on the computer, but the images were originally taken from a photograph.”

Due to the height of the sculptures, it was easier to separate each one into two pieces and then put them together on site.

“Moving them that high on the highway would have required a lot more attention to how we moved them,” says Groom.

Workshop participants create mosaic elements for the “Gateway” sculpture.
A workshop at Lake Conjola, a village that suffered from the fires in 2019.(Facebook: @gatewaysculpture)

Wombats, koalas, lizards and more

The sculpture is also a tribute to the animals and plants lost in the bushfires.

“I made over 100 molds of native animals and invited the artistic community and anyone who wanted to try their hand at creating a three-dimensional animal to join me in the workshop,” explains Ms Rögnvaldsdóttir.

Hundreds of native animals have been created from clay molds.
Hundreds of native animal ceramics were made with clay moulds.(Facebook: @gatewaysculpture)

She held workshops at schools and other venues, and her studio was a hub, weekend after weekend.

The trickiest part was coming up with an idea that would include people of all ages and abilities, but it nailed it.

“I fired about 1,200 pieces of ceramic, then [another local] Anne Stuart and I weaved the wind into [symbolised by the blue] handmade tiles around all the animals.

Clay animals wait on a table to be fired.
Dora invited locals to customize native animal ceramics.(Facebook: @Gatewaysculpture)

“If you look at the animals, none of them really look alike because people worked with the molds and then individualized their own creation.

“Now that it’s over, people are going to get their animals, so it’s going to be very interactive.”

Sharing stories in the streets

Installation of the walkway continued at Ulladulla despite recent wet weather.

The public artwork was partially funded by the NSW Government, under the auspices of Shoalhaven Town Council.

Gateway was installed at Millard’s Creek in Ulladulla.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

And the community also participates.

The project has become more expensive than expected and local non-profit group Southland Creative Inc has set up a crowdsourcing page through the Australian Cultural Fund.

Bronwyn Coulston, director of arts and culture for the council, says Dora did an incredible job of bringing together hundreds of people in the community and putting the sculpture in the ground in just over 12 months.

Gateway welcomes visitors to South Shoalhaven.(ABC Illawarra: Sarah Moss)

“We install temporary and semi-permanent artwork projects across the Shoalhaven to encourage people to get out, into our open spaces, enjoy the outdoors and reactivate streets and green spaces across the Shoalhaven “Ms. Coulston said.

“It’s a gateway to Ulladulla, it’s a gateway to our community and it’s a gateway to the recovery and resilience that has happened after the terrible bushfires that have ravaged this region in 2019/2020.”


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