Burnout 

Portraits capture the mental toll on frontline firefighters.

FIREFIGHTING uniforms might keep the body safe, but there’s no helmet thick enough to prevent trauma creeping into the corners of a firefighter’s mind. 

After moving to WA on his retirement, former Tasmania Fire and Emergency Services chief officer Chris Arnol turned to painting to exorcise his demons, along the way securing himself a semi-finalist position in this year’s prestigious Doug Moran National Portrait Prize.

“I found art as a wonderful release,” Mr Arnol said.

“About two years ago I started doing a life drawing class at Atwell; I just needed a bit of me time being in such a high pressure job.”

Mr Arnol’s most recent semi-finalist piece Eroding Piece by Piece highlights the often invisible issue of mental health and the psychological effects that take a toll on firefighters’ health over time.

As CEO Mr Arnol said he was responsible for managing the psychological trauma of his firefighters which has had a long-lasting effect and filtered through to his artistic works.

“Try not to let the bucket fill up hence the idea of release, try and have the conversations,” he said.

His sitter for the Moran portrait was his former deputy Bruce Byatt; the pair worked side-by-side for years.

Mr Byatt over his long and successful career has worked in four jurisdictions (Melbourne, Queensland, Northern Territory and Tasmania) and in most instances been in charge of chaotic emergencies such as the Brisbane floods and the Coode Island fires.

Mr Arnol said he wanted to show the “deconstructed” and “splitting feelings” and thoughts associated with the enormous responsibility of his time in command.

Movement in time

“I tried to give the background a sense of movement in time as the fires burn and the years pass by.

“He wears a modern commander’s guard, but he is fragmenting and breaking away with the fire,” he said.

Both Mr Byatt and Mr Arnol agreed the cumulative years of firefighting had ground them down mentally.

Mr Arnol said he wanted to dedicate his time to painting and planned to travel to Florence to continue art classes once borders opened following the pandemic.

The DMNPP finalists will be announced on November 1 and the winner declared on November 30, followed by an online exhibition.

by ELLIE WALTON

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