October 19, 2017 – Resurrecting beauty

I took this photo on the side of Highway 12 in Sonoma. It just happens that I’m painting it now.

We’ve been living with wildfires in California for as long as I can remember.  The house my family lived in from the time I was a toddler was across the street from Marin County Fire’s 2-acre headquarters in Woodacre.  On a regular basis we heard the big red trucks headed out the long drive towards Railroad Avenue, their sirens winding up.  But this past week and a half the risk of catastrophic fire has been more real and frightening than I can ever remember.  We knew it was the intense winds that made these fires so devastating, but this morning it was revealed the winds were hurricane-force – weather stations in the area recorded 73 mph winds.  The early hours of the fire came on so fiercely people had precious little time to get out with just their lives.  We read stories of people being picked up out of the streets by first responders wearing nightgowns and with blisters on their bare feet.  Tragically, many were not able to get out – there are still dozens unaccounted for.  As the days went on and as the fire progressed there were evacuation orders that came to new areas.  These people had more time to consider what to pack in their cars – what to save from the oncoming inferno.  People started talking about packing a “go-bag” with important documents, medications, photos and other irreplaceable belongings.  When I think about what I’d grab, I can’t help but think about my paintings.

Sue lives in a beautiful spot up on the side of the Alexander Valley about 100 miles north of us and she comes to paint with us on our Special Saturdays in Larkspur.  Her home and vineyard were threatened last week by the Pocket Fire east of Cloverdale and Geyserville.  She and her husband have been on the island of Kauai, unable to do anything to protect their home.  Their neighbors have kept them posted on the progress of the fire and what was being done to keep it at bay.

Besides the threat to their home, they have family and friends who live in Santa Rosa.  Sue told me she knows at least 20 people who lost everything.  Being so far away as all this was going on added to their stress.  Since a week-ago Monday just about everyone in this area has been hurting.  Even if we’ve not been directly impacted, we feel the pain of those who have lost homes, business, livelihoods, schools – and their loved ones.  It reminds me of how I felt just after 9/11.  In the midst of all of this, Sue was sheepish when she told me that she was worried about her art – including original paintings – on display in a café in Calistoga.  Oh, no!  So, all week we kept tabs on Calistoga as much as we did the area near her home.

With people losing so much, are we off-base to worry about our paintings?  We could paint them again, after all. I so get it though.  I’d feel exactly the same if my paintings were threatened by fire.  We weren’t the only one’s thinking about the loss of art in all this.  Amongst the stories that were selected to print in the paper were those of lost artwork: a photographer in Napa lost all her prints, equipment and studio, a widower lost all his late wife’s watercolors, which made him feel closer to her – for him they were her.  I heard conversations in our art groups concerned about the fate of large art collections, like the De Rosa Preserve, that are up in the area of the fires.

We spend hours and hours on these paintings.  What we do is called artwork for a reason.  But it’s not just our effort.  Making art requires that we carve out time and energy, pushing aside all that would deter us.  In these hours spent apart from ordinary time we bring new life into being.  Yes, not everything we make ends up a shining reflection of our souls, but much does.  The vision in my head of flames turning the results all of this precious time and attention to ash feels crushing.

Losing something, or even having it threatened brings its value into sharp focus.  Beauty being destroyed is an affront to our sensibilities.  The part of the world that has burned just north of us is treasured by many.  The natural landscape plus the vineyards and structures that humans have created there draw people from all over the world to come experience its beauty and sense of the good life.  I have to believe this adds to our collective pain.  I have to believe that we’d feel differently if what burned was more than 300,000 acres of industrial park.

Right after the horror of the thought of having all my art burn up is the knowing, the faith, that if this happened, I would recover.  I also know there would be gifts in the experience that can’t see from here. If I were to venture a guess, I’d imagine that I’d be fueled to make art like crazy!  This week I’ve been heads down in Photoshop making the 2018 calendar, between that and how hard it has been to focus through all this, I’ve not been painting much.  It’s time for me to get back to making art!

Wendell Berry ends his challenging “Manifesto:  Mad Farmer Liberation Front” with this line:  Practice resurrection.  This may sound insensitive while the devastation is still so fresh – especially to those who’ve lost the most.  The fires are still burning in some areas as I write this and there will continue to be people in great need for a long time – years in some cases.  And yet, rain is in the forecast for today, the fire officials predict full containment this week and the process of re-building lives has already started.

I believe that real transformation comes out of both grieving our losses and doing what is in front of us to do.  For me today, this means continuing to hold space in my heart and mind for all that has happened and working on my painting.  Humans often malign each other for the damage we cause, but today, I’m inspired by how automatically we respond by resurrecting beauty.

With my love,


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