Australian Pottery Gallery Bemboka

Pottery Collector Survives the Bushfire

A small sign propped against a fence in the main street of the little village of Bemboka points to the Australian Pottery Gallery. After following more signs through Bemboka’s back streets, we arrive at the gallery but no one seems to be home.

Finding the Gallery

A neighbour shouts across the fence “The car is there, they’re home.”

We walk around the house calling out. A row of trees lining the side fence shows signs of a recent fire. Bright green grass leads from the house to a river bed where bare rocks are easily visible between blackened tree trunks.

David Rofe finally appears from around a corner, adjusting his black T-shirt and short black sports shorts. He admits that he “slept in this morning”. A short, heavy man, Rofe sports a head of curly grey hair.

The Bushfire

Noticing us staring at the blackened edges of his deck, he describes what happened on New Year’s Eve.  The Rural Fire Service stopped the fire about four kilometres away “but the fire came up the river” at around 11am. This wasn’t long after fire consumed Cobargo, but Rofe “hadn’t heard about the Cobargo fire yet”.

Shops destroyed at Mogo
After the nearby Mogo fire

Rofe Saved his Home from the Fire

Indicating a height of around 5cm between his index finger and thumb, Rofe demonstrates that the grass next door was “this high and like walking on crisps”. When the fire reached next door Rofe explains that flames half a metre high raced across the dry grass reaching his house “in around 30 seconds”.

Pointing to the blackened tree next to us, he laughs ruefully “Woodchips make great mulch, but aren’t so great in a fire”.

The woodchips caught alight and two-metre-high flames threatened his home. Fortunately, the power was still working, and Rofe was able to pump water from his considerably reduced tank water supply (because of the drought) to protect his home.

The house in Bemboka was saved by the owner who was home.
Mulch under the tree on the left caught fire.

Had Rofe not been home, and both power and water available, the Gallery and his home would not be standing today.

After the Bushfire

Rofe recalls how the power supply was damaged in the fire. For days he had a mess of power cords all through his home drawing power from the only working plug inside the electricity box outside his home.

Adding to Rofe’s concerns was that his partner, Judith Pearce was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease two years ago. Each morning when she woke up after the fire, she became stressed and disoriented, unable to understand why there were power cords all over the floor. 

Once electricity was restored and the home returned to normal, Pearce’s stress diminished and today she’s more settled.

Green after the bushfire
Green Grass leading to a burnt River Bed

Australian Pottery Gallery, Bemboka

The Australian Pottery Gallery at Bemboka is a collection of works by over 2000 Australian potters. Rofe explains that while he is the collector, Pearce is (was) the foremost expert in post war Australian pottery. He adds that Pearce “has done an amazing job cataloguing the pottery and finding the origins of pots”.

A quick internet search reveals the blog “Australian Pottery 1960s to date” where Pearce catalogued all the pottery in their collection. Her diagnosis in 2018 explains the date of the last blog post, November 2018.

Pottery from the 1960’s

Inside the gallery we are joined by Pearce, who watches on, but doesn’t engage. There are over 4500 pieces in the collection, bought over the years from potters, other collectors, through the internet and at auction. Pieces vary widely in price from $2.00 to collectors’ items worth up to $10 000.

Rofe steers me away from one bowl, saying “that’s worth thousands”. He knows I’m not a collector. 

About seventeen years ago Rofe tells me that he “bought a piece on ebay for $1.00”. The postage was ten times that at $10. Two years ago, he managed to identify the potter and can now price the piece at $600. I suggest that he must have a good eye. He laughs and replies “Rather, good luck”. 

Australian Pottery
My Salad Bowl
Judy Lorraine Australian Potter
Created by Judy Lorraine

My Pottery Purchase

I keep returning to a shallow bowl with an abstract decoration in the base, rather like a Japanese character. Finally, I ask the price. More than I would usually pay, but this is a bushfire recovery road trip and I know we’ll enjoy using it and retelling the story behind its purchase.

A Silver Lining to the Bushfire

As Rofe sees us to our car, he mentions that “the wallabies are now returning”. He muses aloud “the property has become beautiful again. The grass is green and the rocks in the river are now exposed. It’s beautiful again, just different, a nice surprise.”

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  1. Enjoyed reading your story Jo, very heartwarming & no doubt you will have fond memories of your visit every time you use your bowl. Lib

  2. What a beautiful story Joanne heartbreaking in a way but also lovely . What also struck me was the vivid greenness of the grass with the blackened trunks as a reminder of what went through. He demonstrates resilience and so sad about his partner .
    Sounds like a wonderful place to visit but when??? Your salad bowl looks lovely and will have special meaning for you
    Hope all well up on your island. How I would love to visit again and walk around … such a peaceful place
    One day…..

    1. Author

      Yes, Patricia as you say, the bowl holds special memories and the grass regenerated so quickly after a little rain. Stay safe in these challenging times.

  3. Lovely story, with so many layers of story and emotion, Joanne, great that you got to go there before this lockdown. A brief moment in time between two disasters when you could – not that you, or any of us, knew. I would have loved to see a map within the article to see exactly where Bemboka is, but looking up on Google maps myself now. I do love a map.

  4. Lovely to read this story Joanne and to find the pottery survived what was almost a disaster.

    I have yet to get back down the coast to see how things are going
    post bushfires.

    I think everyone is anxious at the moment and eager to get back to normal and go for walks and drives to discover the marvels of nature.


    1. Author

      Thanks Chrissy. It was a pleasant surprise after passing so much devastation. And you’re not wrong about the anxiety. I’m following a friend’s advice to only do what I feel like doing. That’s working for me.

  5. Thanks for sharing Rofe’s story, I could almost feel the fear of that fire as you describe it racing across the neighbor’s dry grass towards Rofe’s house. I’m so glad that the wallabies are returning, the grass is green, and power has been restored…..sounds like things are getting back to normal.

    1. Author

      Yes, returning wildlife and green grass are uplifting. Unfortunately COVID 19 brings new challenges.

  6. Thank you for the story. I’ve known Judith for many years – a brilliant mind in the earliest days of libraries and the Internet. I have been to their gallery in Bemboka in recent years, and was so saddened when David told me of the diagnosis.

  7. Hi. Lovely to read your article and so glad Bemboka survived the devastating fires. I’m Anne Lorraine, daughter of Judy, so also touched that you chose one of my Mum’s pots on your visit to Bemboka. The Lorraine family opened a gallery in Warragul, WAS Gallery, Vic, in November 2019, our first exhibition being Hans Lorraine paintings and a retrospective of Judy’s work was to open in May, 2020. Needless to say Covid 19 shut us down and all shows postponed. We are hoping to reboot again ASAP but will launch Judy’s show in 2019. Being 92, Judy is locked down to keep safe but we hope next year she will be able to participate in her show.

    Living in Gippsland, I’m so devastated by the impact of fires on the fabulous forests of our region and NSW. Let’s hope for a mild summer this season, free from fire and the trauma it brings. Looking forward to being able to cross the border into NSW And visiting Bemboka.

    1. Author

      Thanks for making contact, Anne. So sorry that COVID has put paid to the exhibition this year, but hopefully all will be well next year. We love our salad bowl and always comment how much we enjoy using it when it comes out.

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