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.


Butte fire: Red Sun #2

Red Sun #2 Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches
Red Sun #2
Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches

Thankfully I am not near enough to the flames of the Butte fire to see the actual flames. I hope I never am.

But I am able to see the sun, which has been pretty darn creepy. This afternoon it was rimmed in red and glowing yellow-orange.

The news is that while the fire is still chewing through forest, grassland, and brush like a starved one-eyed ogre, they’ve contained it—30% (whatever that means). Dear reader, if you’re a praying person, pray for rain for California. Do a rain dance, make a wish, direct your energy. We need some water!

And if you can, please donate to the Red Cross to help the victims of this and other horrible fires. I won’t give you a link; just search for the Red Cross so that you’re sure you’re giving to the right organization.

The world on fire

Red Sun Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches
Red Sun
Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches

The fire started on Wednesday, but the severity of it didn’t hit me until Friday afternoon when the sun turned red and the sky began raining ash.

The Butte fire is ravaging Calaveras county; we’ve been on advisory evacuation orders this whole weekend as the flames galloped towards us. Thanks to the nearly 5,000 firefighters, police officers, and other responders (and we are so unbelievably grateful to these brave people who risk their lives to save ours) the march of the fire is slowing. But it’s still moving, and we are in its path.

Fire Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches
Watercolor on #300 hot press Arches

Today I had to paint about this fire.  I can’t see the fire from where I live, but I’ve seen so many photos, so many videos, and my nightmares are inscribed across my mind. I needed to unpack my fears of losing my own home if the firefighters can’t hold the line. I needed to process my sadness for my friends who have lost their homes. And I wanted to try to capture the energy and savagery of this beast that is consuming California.

And I want to be of some use. I can’t help directly. I can’t go bulldoze firebreaks and cut brush, but I can bring this to your attention, dear readers. If you are able, please donate to the Red Cross to help the fire victims across the West. We are burning, burning. So many have lost their homes, their possessions, their businesses and livelihoods. Help if you can.