A Lesson in Fire Fighting

On Tuesday my sketch buddies and I headed out to Alliance Redwoods Conference Center  in Camp Meeker, CA. where the fire fighting strike teams from all over the state were being housed between shifts of firefighting. We wanted to try to tell another part of the story of the fire storms that have so far burned over 100,000acres in Napa and Sonoma counties, the deadliest of which has claimed at least 22 lives, burned thousands of homes to the ground, displaced many thousands more in evacuations, and destroyed many of our beautiful parks, vineyards and more.

As we drove out country roads to the camp, there were frequent reminders of the gratitude that this community has for these fire fighters who are the undisputed heros of the day. Signs were posted on many properties with bright Thank You Firefighters messages. We found ourselves in a caravan of fire trucks all the way out.

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When we arrived we signed in and were given Visitor badges. Wanting to stay out of the way, yet have a good vantage point for sketching, we went to the end of the parking lot filled with trucks, and started sketching.

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Lamy Joy fountain pen and watercolor in Canson Mixed Media 9 X 12″ sketchbook

As we were sketching there was a trickle of firefighters walking by. We soon discovered that we were almost as interesting to them as they were to us. For many of them it was rest time and they were at ease enough to chat and seemed happy to answer questions about when and where they’d come from, which fires they’d been on, etc. Many of them were from southern California and had been here all week working 24 hour shifts.

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Other looked quite weary and seemed more anxious to get settled.

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Some were hanging out in groups, enjoying the fresh air of the redwoods, a welcome break from the toxic smoky air they’d been breathing.

firesuitLucky for us a couple of battalion chiefs, the ones who lead the strike teams of 5 trucks that go out together, decided to have some fun with us artists and had us try on the fire  jacket they wear with its thick layer of insulation and fire retardant shell. Where’s the air conditioner? I asked, knowing that sometimes they’re fighting fires in 120 degree heat. The answer “that’s when you take off the jacket and your sweat cools you“.

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Tony came over to us a while after I sketched him lounging in his truck. He was happy to tell his story, which turned into many stories! A 75 year old volunteer firefighter from Quincy, CA he was on his second consecutive fire in other parts of California and wondering if he might be getting too old for this!! especially having gone 60 hours without sleep when they first came. Pushing the body beyond the limits that most of us could tolerate seemed to be standard for these guys.

We took every opportunity we could to voice our gratitude for their service and they always just turned it around to say how grateful they were to all the people of our community who were so full of spirit and good will. Some said they had never seen anything like it in other places.

Later I remembered that night eleven days ago when the Tubbs Fire came roaring over the hills, lighting up the horizon with flames, fueled by 50-70 mph hot winds blowing in our direction, and I knew that our fate was in the hands of Nature and the firefighters who would jump in their trucks and head this way from as far away as Alaska. Yup! This is one grateful community.

 

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Ashes

Staying on the outskirts of the burned areas, not wanting to get in the way of recovery efforts, not wanting to see the devastation of our beautiful Santa Rosa neighborhoods, parks, vineyards. But the images are already burned into our minds and hearts.

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Muse Group demo: acrylic, gesso, fabric collage on w/c paper, 10 X 11″

Crow lands on a burnt out tree, ponders as he watches ash float down.

Nothing familiar here. In the ashes nothing looks the same, a world upended.

And yet, shapes of people’s lives, of things one time possessed, then not. Shards of things, zippers without the pants. Paper gone, words gone.

Yet in someone’s yard five miles away a restaurant menu piece floats to the ground and a bill as yet unpaid.

 

Smoke

We’ve been warned about the toxic smoke in the air from the north bay area fires. After getting the phone text alert from Sebastopol PD, I got to the Senior Center just as they ran out of face masks. Next stop was Ace Hardware where they were handing out 3 per  (anxious) person from big boxes. I got the kind with the vent and the rating of 95. Only problem is it’s still the most uncomfortable, suffocating experience to wear it, and doesn’t protect the eyes at all. Today I tried walking up to my neighbor’s house up the hill and was fed up with it before I got there. I recommend staying inside. . .if you can. . .when the smoke chokes the air. Tomorrow hopefully clearer skies?

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(Sketched from phone selfie)

Wine Country Fire Evacuees

Our wine country fire evacuees are plentiful just now, 10% of the population of Sonoma County I heard this morning! I am not one of them. I am also not one of those heroic first responders. My lungs cannot tolerate smoke and I’ve been spending a great deal of time fretting and checking on friends and neighbors and just sharing stories and of course fears as the fires rage on.

I was happy to see that someone in our rural neighbor of a shared water company had found an old fire hose to attach to the simple fire hydrant which sits next to my driveway.

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We’ve all been watering around our homes in hopes of preventing fires here if the wind changes directions and blows the embers our way. I could go years and not have so many conversations with my nice neighbors as I’ve had this week. I learned for instance that you can plant native plants that burn up and out quickly and then sprout again the next year! And then there’s the Scotch broom which makes for a more deadly fire.

Today I visited my friend Liz who has welcomed evacuees in her home (inside and out) so that I could meet and then sketch them. The air was more clear today thanks to winds from the north overnight so I climbed inside the pig pen with Madeline and Liam while Barbara enjoyed the sun and serene country setting.

pigs5You can also see Zoey in the picture to the left. She’s the only one who actually lives here ongoing. Barbara, in the chair, was evacuated from a senior living center which luckily did not burn (although her son’s home in Santa Rosa did) and the miniature pigs are the beloved pets of other people who needed a temporary place to house them. Normally they are actually indoor pig-pets, so these accommodations were a bit of a come down for them. But they were adapting admirably. They were not however the best models for sketching.

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I spent my first few minutes trying to understand their various parts as they were in constant movement. These little pigs look more like miniature warthogs without the tusks.

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They had the annoying habit of burying the parts of their body I was sketching in the straw where they were finding something delectable to eat. Nevertheless I was rapidly becoming enamored of them, particularly their gross lip smacking snorting sounds and gorgeous curly tail swishing. They really are the epitome of bad table manners when eating, which seems to be non stop and it’s hilarious! Madeline has these long white eyelashes and bright pink halter (for if you would want to take her for a walk), and Liam is small and dark and they’re both so friendly. Here’s a picture of Liam when he got interested in painting and gave my palette a good wet snort-sniff.

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I wasn’t feeling particularly successful with the sketching, but thought I’d give it one more try. And after a while they actually stopped eating and got kind of mellow.

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and I had more time to observe.

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But once home I had try one more from a photo. My heart goes out to all the fire evacuees, but these little piggies totally stole my heart.

Fire News

Everyone here in Sonoma County wants to know “Are you safe?” So first of all yes, and so is my family and home and neighborhood and town of Sebastopol. And that doesn’t go very far to describe what it’s like to live in this county on fire. Scary and sad is more like it. The air was too dense with smoke to go out and sketch it, and the first responders wanted people out of the way anyway. So I did the next best thing and sketched from our paper, the Press Democrat.

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Sketched from a photo by Kent Porter in the Press Democrat newspaper.

You get the picture here. What’s left of a house and yard and buried car. We’ve been tuned to this kind of picture since Monday morning. Or rather Sunday night when I was awakened by the ding of my cell with a message from a friend “Where are you? Are you packed?” Groggily I looked out my living room window to a view of a horizon on fire. (I’ve tried sketching this from memory but the image I remember is not reproducible).

We packed the car and waited. The fire was visibly distant enough from us to wait, meanwhile realizing we were not nearly prepared for this. Over the next two days conversations ensued about what to take, how to stay informed, how to be responsible to others. It was exhausting and humbling and scary and sad, especially as the stories of evacuations and lost homes unfolded.

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Meanwhile we were marooned inside where the air was filtered. Bob got a call from his sister and tried to fill her in. Our sons kept texting and calling for updates. For a couple days we had almost no phone or wifi. I was desperate to sketch to get a handle on that anxiety. I got out my new Hahnemuhle Nostalgie Sketch Book and grabbed a couple pens and colored pencils. This paper is so sensuous to draw on, smooth in a way that invites a pen to flow.

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Finally we had Comcast cable again and the distraction of TV, Masterpiece and Poldark! Costumes and romance, and that predictable Poldark dark-browed scowl! Perfectly suited to the anxious sketcher in need of relief.

So the Sonoma County fires burn on. But you’ve heard that in the news. My sketch workshop this Saturday has been cancelled due to unhealthy air quality from the fires. I’ll regroup and try another date.

We have our minds on so many things right now. The mind actually collapses when confronted with this sort of thing. But one thing I know. Art restores.

 

Black and White and Mazes

Getting back to black and white occasionally is like clearing the palette from rich (color) food so that one can taste with clarity again. Ha! Well that sounds good anyway. We did a lesson this week in Muse Group of playing with black and white collaged patterns.

blkwhitecamouflageacrylic, collage, black gesso on 10 X 11″ w/c paper

There are ways to deal with mazes and blind alleys. Make it a game and jump in. Have some paint ball fun; play leap frog and roll down a grassy hill. Stir up some random cyclonic energy. Run round in a circle till you collapse, dizzy and spent and laughing. Do you want your life to play like a comedy or a tragedy?

This was a kind of puzzle I wanted to play with, combining an image of a maze or labyrinth (few of us knows the difference) with a dancing figure, engaging in a kind of hide and seek with aspects of camouflage. The discovery was how amazing these bright colors look on the black and white patterning. Something a bit Halloweeny about it, wouldn’t you say?

This Week’s Sketch Lures

The exotic lure of passion vine. I have one growing on the outside wall of my studio. When I was doing Open Studios in the fall this vine would frequently upstage my paintings. Visitors would be snared by its seductive blooms peeking out demurely from dense foliage. They would arrive in my studio not with interest in the paintings, but anxious to know the name of the exotic bloom. Eagerly they would thrust their iPhone picture, just taken, at me for an answer.

Recently one of my students remarked on the heady fragrance from the vine, noticed even before the blooms. On a perfect early fall day this week I myself succumbed to the mystery and brought out a folding chair and my sketch gear to hang out with one particularly well situated bloom.

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I got a respectable enough but rather ho-hum sketch and was bested yet again by this showy flower. You can see my problem. Look at the palette of color and shapely forms of one of nature’s own prima ballerinas!

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Even after I tried all my cool tricks like splatter and framing and such, I had lost heart to try again. Today maybe I’ll just sit for a few minutes, allow the vine’s spell to enfold me, and celebrate its beauty without trying to copy it.

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Every other Sunday I attend a meditation session and discourse by my Tibetan Buddhist teacher in Point Richmond, then drive home to Sebastopol. This Sunday I’d brought my sketch gear and took some time to eat lunch and sketch in the tiny town square. Point Richmond, even with its proximity to San Francisco and Oakland, has maintained a delightful small town ambiance with much of the cultural diversity and artistic interest found in other areas of the Bay Area. My plan is to work my way around the couple blocks of the town, enjoying some Sunday sketching as long as the weather holds.