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.
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”.
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.
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.
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”.
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.”