Strathewen: The Letterbox Project

There is a house half way up a slope at the end of a windy dirt road in the tangle of Strathewen’s back streets. Looking out from the verandah at the lush valley, it’s hard to imagine that nearly three years ago the view was a smouldering grey landscape.

The home belongs to Strathewen artist Marion Oakley, her husband and their two children. Light streams in through floor to ceiling windows, creating a sense of warmth with a hint of spirituality. The timber and mud brick home is unique for numerous reasons, but most exceptional of all is that it survived the Black Saturday fires while most of the other homes in the valley were destroyed.

When the community returned to see what remained of their neighbourhood, Marion’s home became a meeting point. Within weeks she had thought up The Letterbox Project and her lounge room had been transformed into a handicrafts harem.

Over the next 18 months, local Strathewen women spent a day a week working on the letterboxes. While the project initially set out to bring back some colour to the area, this time together quickly took on a much more essential role, providing a place for the women to talk, comfort each other, share their joys and fears, and cry.

While the group was predominantly woman, there was one man, Dennis Spooner, who had lost his wife and son in the fires. He became Chief Undercoater, and spent many days undercoating the posts and letterboxes in preparation for the mosaicking.

The project started off small and self-funded, but with grants from Regional Arts Victoria and the Nillumbik Council, Marion and her team was able to make letterboxes for anyone in the region who wanted one. The nearby Bunnings also helped out, providing materials as well as sending staff to help. Construction also spread to other communities who made letterboxes for Strathewen residents who had lost their homes.

The letterboxes soon started appearing, and the community began delivering cards and notes to each other, wishing their neighbours well and supporting them in their rebuild. Dini Shepherd, a local with a love of native orchids, photographed their return through the black landscape and created cards that she delivered as families put up their letterbox.

Wes and Georgina Stecher were one of the families who had a letterbox made for them. They carried it with them as they moved from house to house, waiting for the right time to erect it. That time came just a few weeks ago when a fence was put up on the front of their property.

As Marion says, ‘While they may not have a house, at least they have a letterbox’.

Nearly three years since losing their house, Wes and Georgina hope to have a home to go with their letterbox soon. While most people have got letterboxes, every now and then Marion will hear of someone who doesn’t, and she’ll set about making them one.

The result is not just a place for letters, but also a memorial of the fires, and a remindeder of the strength and resilience of the Strathewen community.

Project: Aftermath Client: ABC Open Location: Strathewen, Victoria, Australia Date: October 2011 Producer: Benj Binks Writer: Benj Binks Director: Benj Binks Cinematographer: Benj Binks