Shaftesbury artist Darren Wheeler’s equipment and art was destroyed when his West Melbury Business Park unit burned to the ground on Easter Sunday. Alfred heard how Darren is rebuilding his life.
Easter Sunday 2019 is a date that sculptor and woodturner Darren Wheeler would love to forget. But he never will. Darren was in bed, having an early night, when a friend messaged him through Facebook to tell him that his unit was on fire.
The huge blaze at West Melbury Business Park destroyed Darren’s workspace as well as his neighbouring traders’ premises. The sculptures Darren had prepared for summer exhibitions and the wooden platters that he crafts were incinerated. Some of his grandfather’s tools were lost, too.
A few days ago, at the start of December, I met Darren at the Business Park in his newly completed grey, steel industrial unit. He looked different to when we last met, a few days after the devastating fire. The past twelve months have taken their toll on the artist. Darren revealed that he has lost seven-and-a-half stone.
“After 25 years, my marriage broke up in November last year. I had a home-based workshop and so I moved in here in February and I lost everything in the fire. I lost everything with the marriage breakup and then I lost everything again, which is why I was so upset,” Darren said.
“I was already starting to lose weight but once April came, I just hit a depression. I didn’t eat and I wasn’t looking after myself. I was sleeping rough in my van for a while after the marriage breakup. It’s been a really crap year.”
Easter Sunday was one of Darren’s most dreadful days. “It was a horrible, horrible day.” Darren was understandably emotional when we spoke in April, at his darkest hour. Six months on, he explained exactly how low he was.
“I’m a coward. I would never have the strength to take my own life but there have been points this year where, if the good Lord came down and said, ‘Come on Darren, that’s enough’, I would have walked away with him quite happily. But that’s not the attitude to have. I can see that now. I can’t give up on our four beautiful children and that’s what’s kept me going.”
Darren found strength in the supportive words of friends and many strangers in the days directly following the fire. In April, he told me that his phone had crashed following the influx of messages. That kindness has continued to this day.
“The community, whether it’s the bushcraft community, the woodworking community or the community around Shaftesbury, has just been incredible,” said Darren. “The artist community as well. You just don’t know how many people you know appreciate or even like you. You don’t realise how the world is spinning really until disaster strikes and when it does, it is so very humbling to get the response that I got.”
He says that the words of encouragement have made a big difference. “It’s helped me keep going. I have had people contact me through Facebook. People have contacted me from all over the world. I have customers in Canada, Holland and America. There have been people from Scotland and just down the road. It’s been incredible.”
After the word spread about Darren’s desperate situation, he was offered temporary accommodation near Dorchester. “I was a guest artist at Sculpture by the Lakes for a long time. Simon Gudgeon, a friend of mine, was very generous and kind to me and allowed me to use one of his barns as a base while I was waiting for this to be rebuilt. I only moved out a few weeks ago. It was very good of him.”
Simon arranged an auction for Darren and many fellow Dorset artists donated works. A crowdfunding page also helped raise cash. That financial support was important because Darren couldn’t rely on an insurance payment. He was intending to open his unit on 1st May and his contents insurance wasn’t live when the fire took hold days before.
Darren tells me that two court cases are pending so he does not want to talk about the cause of the fire, which started in another business. He says he is not aware of any pay-outs made to any individual or business affected and he believes this situation will ‘drag on’ for many years.
I asked Darren what advice he would give to anybody who felt, like he did, that they were at rock bottom with seemingly nowhere to go. “You just don’t give up, do you? Go and chat, seek some help and advice from your loved ones around you or professionals. Just don’t give up. I have been very lucky. I have had an incredible amount of support. The guy that’s here today helping me is a mate who has taken time out of his day. There are some genuinely lovely people here in North Dorset,” said Darren.
His friend looked up and smiled to acknowledge me and continued installing a lathe. “I’ve still got the skills but it’s very frustrating that I haven’t got the kit to just go out and make something. We are here today rewiring a second lathe and then after that the third lathe will be operational.”
Darren says his business is not yet back to normal, but he can now see the way ahead. “It’s just a huge mountain to climb. It’s one of those that you can’t see the peak. You just have to keep going at it. It is very difficult,” he said, adding, “I am not fully operational yet. I can make a few things but nowhere near the level that I was at. It’s an ongoing process. The fire took decades of kit and wood collecting. I have to rebuild fully. It will take time. There was nothing worth saving, so I am starting again from scratch.”
When I spoke to Darren a few days after the fire, he vowed to return to Shaftesbury, because his children attend school in our town. Coming back to the business park is one goal he has achieved. His new accommodation should be more resilient.
“I can’t drill into the walls to hang anything up because that will affect the resistance to fire. I don’t know whether it is fireproof or just delays the fire coming through, if there was another. It is metal. It’s better than wood at resisting fire, so hopefully we will stand a chance if the unthinkable happens again.”
He hopes that the adage ‘lightning never strikes twice’ is true. “I can’t go through all that again,” he grimaced.
Darren has set himself an important goal. “I will be having a stand at Dorset Arts Weeks next year. The venue is to be confirmed but I will have stock.” He says it will be an important milestone for him, effectively telling the world that is back. “It is the biggest event that I do in a biannual calendar and I’ve done it for several years. It is a fantastic event that is spread across the brilliant county of Dorset. Come and support artists, because we need support,” he urged.
2020 can’t come quickly enough. Darren is looking forward to New Year’s Eve, when he can finally turn his back on 2019. “Somewhere in the future, I will sit down, take a sigh and just think about what has happened this year. It’s been a very intense unfortunate year,” he said.
But Darren hopes that he will be able to put everything into perspective tomorrow, on Christmas Day. “I will, no doubt, have a brilliant Christmas because I’ve got four beautiful children.”