#sonomastrong

Wildfire Anniversary

I think it’s best to start at the end of this extraordinary week of events commemorating the wildfires of Sonoma County last October that earned the designation of the the most destructive wildfire in California history.

For me the last event, Tuesday night the 9th at Coffey Park, where about 500 people gathered in the dark was such a tangible expression of solidarity, hope and love that I was swept away in it. Especially when the President of Coffey Strong, Pamela Van Halsema said, “We’re going to sit on these front porches we’re building and we’re going to greet each other by name, because we know each other now and we can call each other friend.” I actually caught myself feeling jealous that these families, who had lost so much, but actually had gained something that few neighborhood groups can claim.

ComeHomeSoon

It was of course too dark for me to sketch, so I did this one from a picture I took. Almost half of the 1,321 homes that were lost that night last October are being rebuilt now, many completed or almost, making the neighborhood an active construction site.

There were moments of silent prayer for the five neighbors who lost their lives in the fire that night. Poems were read and music played to lead the crowd through memories to hope. Even in the dark I ran into a couple of the people whom I had sketched and once again felt that connection of love and hope.

Back to the earlier events: Last weekend began at Shiloh Park with an event sponsored by the Parks and Rec. Dept., Wildfire Anniversary Event: Community Healing Together. Twelve sketchers showed up to help capture Fire Stories. We had a sign and binder of fire sketches and badges so that people would know who we were.

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The opening ceremony took place under the oaks where Aztec Dancers and drummers did a healing ceremony and dances calling on Mother Earth, bowing to the four directions, and even involving the audience to join in a spiral dance.

AztecDancers Some of the sketchers captured the life and color of the dancers. You’ll find their sketches on the new SketchingFireStories website!

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Some of us stood at a table in the activities area and invited people to look at the sketches in a binder. Kyle had come with his band from Elsie Allen H.S. to play in the closing for the day. Penny Hastings, who was there to help interview, knew Kyle and had her pad ready to record his account of the fire, leaving me free to do a quick sketch. He started out by downplaying his story, I think because he didn’t lose his own house. But he had become one of the first responders, spending days helping out at the high school evacuation center after getting his family to safety.

Holly

Next Penny and I interviewed/sketched Holly, whom I had met in Coffey Park. Holly and her husband are now rebuilding the Coffey Park house they lost in the fire. She was one of the legions of people who endured multiple fire related traumas that first week of the fire. She was glad to have come to the Anniversary event. But on the way there she received a Code Red Alert on her phone, which triggered fear. Dry winds blowing on a low humidity day has become an ominous reminder.

CourthouseSquare by Susan Cornelis

On Monday the 8th Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa was the scene of another anniversary event where children and adults were decorating the plaza with chalk drawings and words. City and county officials were there along with the firefighter’s honor guard. Senator Mike McGuire was going around handing out what looked like homemade cookies! May Khosia, our poet laureate read her poetry, and a fire fighter rang the memorial bell for all the souls in our county and the tri-county area who lost their lives in the fires.

Forum by Susan Cornelis

On Tuesday morning I got to hear my favorite radio show, KQED Forum with Michael Krasny, live at Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. In the two hours of the program no stone was left unturned in discussing all the issues raised by the North Bay fires that challenged all assumptions about disaster preparedness, from fire fighting to insurance to rebuilding, communications and so much more. You can listen to it here.

I was sitting in the front row, but the stage was big and I couldn’t read the name cards or see facial features clearly. I’ve learned to just approximate my drawings, and I apologize to the speakers! Listening while sketching, writing in between, trying to get the main points but missing many of them. . .I must say that it’s a challenge that makes the time fly by! The group above was in the first hour.

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And then a whole new seating of illustrious experts arrived in the second hour. I was so impressed with the passion and dedication of all the speakers. They admitted that yes, we are not ready for another Tubbs Fire, but we’re doing everything we can to fight the battles that need fighting to bring resources to bear. And here’s what you, the home-owner can do.

And so, here we are in the lovely month of October, with tree colors starting to flame. With no firestorms, but also no complacency about that, because we remember too well. We’re a community still needing years more of healing and recovering from last October. But I think the anniversary events helped those who lost homes and jobs, as well as those who didn’t. If there is such a thing as a shared spirit of hope, this community has it.

I hope you’ll visit the Sketching Fire Stories website, Facebook page of the same name and Instagram #sketchingfirestories to see more of our group’s sketches!

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Kevin’s house

It all started with the article in the Press Democrat showing Bettina and Carole and I sketching out on the streets of Coffey Park, that famously unfortunate neighborhood of fleeing souls that lost 1200 homes in one night in last October’s firestorm in Santa Rosa, CA.

Sasha saw the article and contacted us to see if we could do a similar “fire story sketch” of  Kevin’s (her fiance) home that burned that night.  The idea was to try to do something showing the passage of time.

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I started by sketching what was the present moment of the new home coming up on a street which was busy with construction.

Of all the neighborhoods in Santa Rosa that burned in that fire, Coffey Park is way ahead in efforts to rebuild. You can see the Coffey Strong signs everywhere that express a kind of neighborhood “united we stand” sentiment that has proved to be so vital to the spirit of healing and renewal.

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Sasha wanted another sketch showing the possession that Kevin was the most distressed to lose in the fire – his shiny new red motorcycle! Luckily she had a photo of the motorcycle before and after, as well as a before the fire photo of the house. I was able to combine all three in this rendering.

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Sasha invited me to come after work to see how the house was coming along, meet Kevin, give them the sketches, and watch the Coffey Strong neighbors greeting each other for their “walk the neighborhood” and potluck gathering.  There were smiles and hugs and picture taking and exchanges of information about how the construction is going, decisions that are being made, etc. It felt like the kind of survivor’s club I’d want to be a member of.

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Kevin and Sasha are told the house will be finished by Christmas. I sure hope Kevin has a motorcycle under the tree!

“Sketch Artists Capture Coffey Park!”

We made it to the front page of the paper! A treat to wake up to this:

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The online version here is easier to read and features lots of sketches, Carole Flaherty’s, Bettina Armstrong’s and mine.

Many thanks to the members of the award winning (a Pulitzer prize no less!) Press Democrat team of reporter Robert Digitale and photographer Beth Schlanker for adding this story to their ongoing series about the recovery of Coffey Park, the Santa Rosa neighborhood destroyed by the Tubbs fire.

And here’s page two:

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Carole, Bettina and I agree that this kind of on location sketching is always heart opening and healing for us as much as any people we meet along the way.

“When there’s something that touches our hearts like this, there’s just more in it.” -Carole Flaherty

Coffey Park is Coming Back!

It’s been a while since I’ve been out sketching the firestorm and aftermath story. But the timing was right on Tuesday and we headed out to see what we would find.  Not what I expected surely. Lots of building going on! Lots of homes going up. The debris removers were gone. All of the twisted up vehicles and singed barbeques were gone. And in their place, lumber, and pipes, and carpenters with tool belts. I found a small patch of shade and jumped in!

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watercolor and pen on 9 X 15″140lb CP Arches paper

I’ve gotten tired of the paper one finds in  ready-made sketchbooks, so I’m trying out a system of working on signatures of paper cut to size and later to be bound in books. Bob has signed on to do the binding (after the fact) since he has all the equipment and know-how. Lucky me! I actually do not like this Arches paper for sketching. It’s too hard and too textured, so you have to work too hard to get the paint down. So I ordered the paper I love, which is Fluid 100 paper made by Hand book Co. (Global arts). And that’s what I’ll be using, not this hard stuff. However I really like this size which can either be 9X7.5″ portrait or opened up to full spread at 9X 15″, which is about the size I can manage if I have 30-60 minutes to sketch. I’ll share the whole set up once I get it figured out and more importantly, tried out!

I must say the mid day visit to Coffey Park was good for my spirits. The carpenter reading the blueprints in the right hand corner helps to tell the story of a community which has a chance for a brand new life. I’m anxious to go back and even breathe in all the exhaust from trucks and construction to enjoy the spirit of renewal. It’s been a rough few months since the fire for these folks who lost their homes.

 

Sentinels of the Fire

I was worried that when I got the time to stop by Paradise Ridge Winery again, where the tasting room and wine making facility were burned in the Tubbs fire, that these tanks would be cleared away. Yet there they stood, silent sentinels before the charred trees, . If only they had voices to speak of what happened that fateful night last October.

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fountain pen and watercolor in a grey toned Stilman + Birn 9 X 12″ sketchbook

Of course I took a bit of artistic liberty here to portray them as I saw them, like comrades at arms, standing together for solidarity during and after the firestorm. You can see the green of the meadows peaking through, and the miraculous return of foliage. The vineyard below has also leafed out, portending an excellent season of winemaking.

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fountain pen and w/c in Field Watercolor Journal 7 X 10″

This sketch I did first on site recorded another aspect of the story. In the post-fire clean up efforts, the crushed grapes were emptied in a pile in the foreground, another colorful metaphor for the destruction. My sketch ended up looking too “clean”, which is why I opted next for the grey toned paper (above) I’ve been mostly using for sketches of the burn.

I hope to get back for more sketching at Paradise Ridge. They are busy working on a building to serve as a tasting room that may be open this summer. The grounds are so alluring, with sculptures still standing like eternal guardians.

To see my other sketches from Paradise Ridge see this post.

Barbeques are the Survivors

A lot of mobile homes burned in the Tubbs fire last month. And some next door did not. One tries to imagine the fire burning through one property and not crossing the street to burn another. What stopped it at that point? These are the questions that run through your mind when you look at the burn.

One thing you see lots of is barbeques standing intact among the rubble. They are the survivors of the firestorm. They look like you could light them up and grill a steak on them as is. By the end of the summer season I know our barbeque doesn’t really look so different from the ones I’ve seen in the burned neighborhoods. I guess their “species” already had lots of experience with fires and heat, so they took the Tubbs Fire in their stride.

barbequepen and watercolor and gouache in Stillman + Birn 9 X 12″ gray toned sketchbook

 

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.