“WE'RE f*#ked”. It was Black Saturday in February 2009. Ursula and Werner Theinert had escaped their burning house in Callignee, south of Traralgon, when the smoke made it unbearable. They wrapped their faces in wet towels to protect themselves against the smoke and the molten laserlight that had melted like licking streams of toffee from the ceiling in the strong winds and huddled in the alcove as the full fury of the fire passed their home. The contrast from the black of the previous hours as the smoke blocked the sun to the bright eyeball-searing light as the fire passed was incredible. Trees exploded and windows shattered. The noise was like a jet taking off.
And as the fire miraculously skirted their home they re-doubled their efforts to save the rest of the house. They went in search of the buckets filled with water they had left on the porch only to find the buckets had melted. Only one stainless steel bucket remained. Werner turned to the fire pump – but its hose had melted too. No electricity, no petrol fire pump and no getting back into the house! They were to find out later than even the underground watering system had also melted in the intense heat. Hence Werner's statement. And then Ursula remembered the spa filled with water. Somehow they managed to save most of their home.
They hadn’t been expecting the fires to come to them. They were more concerned with fellow artists who lived in Gembrook and Warragul. But then a neighbour on the top of the Callignee hill rang to tell them the fire was coming towards them. They decided to stay and fight the fire. They stoically avoided meeting each other's eyes for fear that it would weaken their resolve but just got on with it and put their fire plan into action. The neighbour rang again – by this time it was too late to leave. “Goodbye – and good luck.” It was a tearful reunion when they saw each other again in the early hours of the following morning. Another neighbour and his son did leave – but too late – and they saw the ruined car the next day as they left their property.
What had started as a collaboration of artists to exhibit in several regional galleries now took a twist as Ursula, Werner, Peter Biram, Kerrie Warren and Leonie Ryan reworked their collection to display their reflections of the fires that had affected all their lives. And so it was that the ‘The Fire' series of works, the ‘Fields of View‘ exhibition went on display.
After two very busy years of re-building their home, garage, sheds, garden and much-missed studio and workshop, Ursula and Werner went for a drive to the Bass Coast. Serendipitously they found a bush block in Wonthaggi – and impetuously decided to buy it. Their neighbour was the son of Wonthaggi artist Dennis Leversha, and it wasn't long before Dennis introduced himself and asked if they would be interested in participating in a small start-up gallery. The rest is history. Ursula is now president of ArtSpace Wonthaggi, the community gallery.
Ursula always had an interest in art. Her father draws and paints and their home was filled with his work. She studied art at school but wanted to be a teacher. Suddenly she had an urge to travel the world. She decided to join the navy and was waiting to be called up when she met Werner. They fell in love and married when Ursula was only 18 and so cut short a life in the armed forces. They bought six acres of land and worked hard to pay it off and built their home themselves. Ten years after they were married a beautiful boy was born and after a few years Ursula managed her dream of going to university and getting her teaching qualifications.
But life was not always blissful. After losing her mother to cancer and their baby girl to SIDS, Ursula and Werner “ran away” to Bahrain. It was here, teaching in an international school, that Ursula rediscovered her love of art. Friends in the art scene there encouraged her to paint. When they returned to Australia after the second Gulf War she undertook a diploma of art majoring in photography and painting and a diploma in ceramics. She loved it.
One unit was particularly interesting as it focused on the practicalities of art such as framing, how to hold an exhibition and how to enter art competitions. Ursula decided she would enter the Archibald Prize, no less. She has done so for the past 11 years. While not successful, each of her portraits has been selected in the “Hidden Faces" exhibition, the Victorian Salon des Refuses that follows the Archibald. She has also been a finalist in the Portia Geach Memorial Award for portraiture by female artists and a semi-finalist in the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize.
She has found portraits challenging due to the need to be accurate. “You need to be very disciplined”, she says. Landscapes are her preferred style, representing the earth as “Mother Nature”, a living entity. She has learnt a lot over the years and is constantly seeking direction in her art. Many times she has become dispirited and cynical and had almost given up painting, but over the past 12 months she has taken classes with Ken Griffiths and learnt that it is OK to make mistakes and OK to paint over a work – something she would not have done before.
As a result she reworked a piece “Fernery” and entered it into the Artist Society of Phillip Island Exhibition in Cowes at Cup Weekend. She wanted the piece to have an oriental influence and create a sense of an intimate experience where one could imagine being in a special place. It must have worked as she won best in show and is now an entrant in the Bass Coast YAC Award.
Telling me about the fire, Ursula said, “I felt like I was a soldier in World War I. I was waiting, waiting, knowing that the storm would come. It was the waiting that was so hard.”
Who knows? Maybe the wait for Ursula for her direction in art is over and she has found where she wants to be.