Tubbs Fire

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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Fire Flow

firepourDemo for Monday Muse Group: acrylic, Pouring Medium, collage (paper, netting, “medallion skins”)

Such beauty, red, color of sunset, of ripe apples, of rosy cheeks and

Color of flames blowing this way, color of monster chewing up homes, melting down metals and tossing cars like those evil midwestern twisters.

And that Hollywood Oscars-night glow on my horizon. Dumbfounding.

A couple of days after the Tubbs fire (since anointed as the most destructive fire in California’s history) began and while it was still raging on, I tried painting the horizon in flames in the night sky as I viewed it from our living room window on that night of October 8. It didn’t work. There was no way to paint it “on purpose” because this fire was the essence of random. Add to that rampant, unconstrained and unpredictable.

Those same adjectives could be used for acrylic pouring medium which is formulated to make acrylic paints flow and level out and keep moving as you tip and turn the paper, and to keep moving until they dry, which takes a while. Pouring Medium is the name for the Liquitex brand, but Golden has their own version called GAC 800. Mix a few drops of fluid acrylic paint with the medium and you’re ready to pour, either onto your painting surface (paper here) or onto plastic in order to make “skins”, or as I like to call the more circular pools, “medallions”. Here are some of the other medallions I made.

medallionsWhen they’re dry, after a day or so, you peel them up and use them as collage pieces. The one on the lower left was made by marbling with a stick and tipping the surface. The others were made on a level surface with pouring and dropping the paint, all mixed with pouring medium.

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These involved more tipping of the surface to cause more random occurrences as in the painting at the top. You never know what’s going to happen. . . like that fire.

I’ll be teaching “medallions” and other mixed media techniques in the upcoming workshop. Contact me if you’re interested!

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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.