How art is helping a community heal the burn scars of the Butte Fire

Fire sculpture
Photo: Will Mosgrove
When the Music Stopped
Sculpture made with salvaged objects from the Butte Fire

Sitting on the blackened earth, she took a moment to cradle the clarinet’s skeleton. She ran her fingers over the burned through wall of the bell, the pads fused closed, the jagged end where a mouthpiece had once been. —Cynthia Restivo

Pieces: A Community Healing Art Project

Yesterday I attended the opening for the show called Pieces: A Community Healing Art Project. It’s a show of art, poetry, and prose exploring last year’s tragic Butte Fire.

You should come to tiny San Andreas in Calaveras County and see this powerful show.

If you don’t live in the Sierra Foothills, let me remind you what happened. Last September, a fire ripped through rural Calaveras County and fried over 70,000 acres. More than 800 structures were destroyed, better than half of them homes. Places where people lived. Places where people had their lives.

It happened so fast that many residents fled with little more than their clothing, their pets, and not much else. When I say that buildings were destroyed, I mean the houses and everything in them were reduced to nothing but ashes. If Grandma’s china and your mother’s wedding dress were left behind in the mad rush to escape, they were incinerated. Not to mention your pots and pans, your favorite chair. Your studio, your art supplies, the artwork you created that marked the course of your career, your life.

I know, it’s been a year since the fire. Old news, right? Calaveras County has fallen out of the news cycle. With our tragedy eclipsed not just by other wildfires, but by election foofery, Olympic flick-flacks, and (your choice, readers) celebrity name + visible body part, my community is trying, with little publicity, to recover from last year’s tragic Butte Fire.

You need to come to Calaveras Country and see this show.

The artworks, including paintings, collage, sculptures and photographs, are in response to the Butte fire.  They are testaments to the bravery of the artists who lost their homes,  who still reel and stagger in various states of balance. Framed poems and artist statements speak with stark gulps of grief, yet also wobbly words of hope and renewal.

Perhaps the most powerful pieces are the sculptures made of items scavenged from the ashes: A clay hand, missing all fingers but the charcoal-stained thumb. A ceramic pot, still intact but too firestorm-fragile to be touched. A weed eater, unrecognizable until you read the card next to it. The remains of a manual typewriter, with glass slumped into a form that resembles a hummingbird buzzing at the side of the keyboard.

When your life has been stolen, how do you know the manner in which you should move forward? But you do move forward, if only because time stands behind you and treads on your heels whether you advance or not.

Art helps you move your feet; it’s the great healer.  Art is how we process things; Art is how we make sense of the world; Art is how we find ourselves when all other maps become meaningless and we are wandering in a charred wilderness of blackened trees.

Come to Calaveras County and see this show. Because the artists there teach us how to salvage our lives from tragedy; how to navigate loss; how to begin traveling on the slow switchback trail of recovery. It’s a small show, to be sure. But it’s powerful in a way that you won’t forget.

In truth, we all walk through life on a paper bridge that could, at any moment, melt in the rain or crisp in a stray flame, plunging us into a gully. We need these messages, these semaphores and telegraphs and murmured communiqués from artists spooling their own ferries across their inner landscapes. They teach us how to grieve, and how to heal.

Pieces: A Community Art Project will be on display at the Calaveras Arts Council Gallery in San Andreas through September. 22 Main Street (Off Highway 49)

Click here for local news station coverage of the exhibit.


2 thoughts on “How art is helping a community heal the burn scars of the Butte Fire

Comments are closed.