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Visiting the Burn

The roads through neighborhoods burned in last month’s devastating fires are finally open again. Over 5100 homes burned and an additional 1000 buildings. This past week I was drawn to take a better look, by a complex mixture of compassion, curiosity and my own need to heal in the way that comes easiest for me, through art making.

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pen, watercolor, gouache in 9 X 12″ Stillman + Birn Nova Series Grey toned sketchbook

In the Mark West Springs area: rubber melted off tires, steel girders collapsed/bent,  while on the same property trees retaining full foliage.  Across the street roses blooming, and farther down, beautiful homes untouched by the flames. But that night of October 8 the fire didn’t stop there. It twirled like a Dervish and raced on for miles. In the bright light of a sunlit day, there was no sense to make of its crazy drunken path.

Yet here I sat on a lovely fall day, listening to the Mariachi music and mellow voices of the workers nearby. Pink ribbons flapped in the breeze on mailboxes indicating that a hazardous waste inspection had been done.

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Metal, cement, bricks, rocks, some glass and ceramic tiles and statuary remain, though not always in the original place. In these neighborhoods there are so many stairs to nowhere now. And this goddess arising from the shell, having also risen from the fire, seemed full of despair in one moment. . .and full of hope in the next. The metal sculpture on the right (once a heater perhaps?) tilted empathically at the same angle as the goddess. So much beauty in all this loss, shining paradoxically through the sadness.

roundbarn The Round Barn had stood on the hillside in Santa Rosa for 119 years before it burned in the Tubbs fire. I wanted to see it, and pay homage with a sketch, but although we knew where it was supposed to be, we couldn’t find it. On the blackened hillside above Mendocino Avenue leaned a small, leafless tree. I assumed at first that because the Barn was such a beloved landmark, the usual fire debris had already been trucked out.

But as we caught sight of the stone pilings, arranged in a circular fashion below, we realized we had reached the spot. Piles of rusty nails and bolts littered the ashy ground and green shoots of grass, bright and vibrant were already beginning to lend a healthy glow to the hillside.  Such was the contrast to the mountain of gray debris left behind by the fire that consumed the K-Mart and others businesses.

A walk on the burnt hillside restored my vision of nature as flexible, yielding to disaster, bending and springing back so ardently on this hillside meadow where an old wooden barn burned to the ground. Who knows what flowers will decorate the hillside this winter and spring?

It was time to choose which of the fire art I would render in my sketch. A few sheets of metal curled up in sculptural beauty, kissed with colors of flame and oxidation? The big oak which split in two in the fire, making a kaleidoscope of sky holes in the trunk and a stretch of trunk curling down to meet the ground and opening up future homes for many creatures? I chose the bench to sketch, for the story it told of the fire’s unique artistry.

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