Artist rises from the ashes

Raglan artist Gila Cohen is turning a lockdown disaster into an opportunity to celebrate her recovery, her art and the community that, she says, provided her strength in her darkest hour.

Using the fire that destroyed her home and nearly took her life as her motivation, Gila is curating the artwork that survived the blaze for a solo exhibition at the Raglan Old School Arts Centre.

“This is the first time I have ever exhibited on my own. I’ve been involved in group exhibitions but never on my own,” she says.

Running from November 4-22, the exhibition will feature work from all eras of her artistic journey; from her early days as an art student in Australia to her creative endeavours since the fire.

What started out as night in the early weeks of lockdown with her bubble-buddy Arlene quietly watching DVDs ended in the fire that razed her home nearly to the ground.

A film and television costume designer in a former life, Gila was a collector of vintage clothing; a Marlon Brando-style leather biker jacket she bought in the 1980s, shoes from 1845 are some of the objects that went up in flames.

It was hard, she says, but she’s philosophical, “I don’t have the object anymore but I have the memories. I loved them when I had them.”

The fire started in an alcove in her bedroom when Gila turned on a wall light to search for a DVD. She’s certain she turned off the light but thinks in her rush she may have not fully flicked the switch off.

It took about an hour for some fabric that was brushed up against the light to ignite.

By the time Gila and Arlene smelt the smoke, the fire was already a metre high.

In their panic they tried to put it out and after about 15-minutes of trying to battle the blaze, Gila almost succumbed to exhaustion and smoke inhalation.

“There was a moment when I thought – I’m just going to lay down and go to sleep.”

By this stage, the house was in darkness and the Arlene’s screams to get out, brought Gila back around.

Built as a bach about 50-years ago, it had been the permanent residence of the retiree-owners before Gila bought it a year and a half ago.

While the little bach might be gone, there’s still lots of the former owner’s memorabilia that survived, including a donsy of gnomes that were made by the husband and painted by the wife.

“This was my first home. It was filled with many precious things that are irreplaceable and I felt a sense of guilt about not being able to look after the home for the people I bought it off.”

Those moments of melancholy are slowly easing as Gila comes to terms with the loss and finds strength and happiness in her new journey.

Once the insurance business is all sorted, she is looking forward to a new home being built on the site.

In the meantime, Gila is busy preparing for the exhibition which, she says, will help her let go of the old and make way for the new, and provide an opportunity to share her work.

“I really felt held in this community and that gave me the strength to do the exhibition.”

Setting the reserve prices low for her older pieces, Gila hopes she can appeal to everybody’s budgets.

“People ask me ‘what can we do to help’; coming to the exhibition, maybe buying a piece is a way they can help,” she says.

Janine Jackson

Head to the Old School to check out Gila’s Open Door exhibition – opening and auction is Friday 6 November at 6pm. The Old School gallery is open for the exhibition Monday to Sunday, 10am-2pm.