‘It’s Just Ashes’: Northern California’s Wildfires Have Taken a Devastating Toll on Local Artists

The fires destroyed the home of late "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles Schulz, among others.

A photo from Stuart Palley's series
A photo from Stuart Palley's series "Terra Flamma: Wildfires at Night," documenting Southern California wildfires. The El Portal Fire burns on a hillside in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park on Sunday evening July 27, 2014. Courtesy of Stuart Palley.

As firefighters battle to contain the wildfires raging across Northern California—which have left 41 people dead and scorched more than 217,000 acres—local artists are beginning to grapple with the damage to their homes and studios. Some have lost everything. Among them is Jean Schulz, the widow of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, whose house burned to the ground along with original artwork by the beloved cartoonist.

Charles Schulz lived in the split-level Santa Rosa home from the 1970s until his death in 2000. “It’s the house he died in,” his son, Monte Schulz, told the Associated Press. “All of their memorabilia and everything is all gone.” (The home of Monte’s brother Craig Schulz also burned down.)

Luckily, the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, home to most of the artist’s original artwork and memorabilia, was spared by the disaster. As of October 14, the institution expected to be closed for at least two weeks in the aftermath of the blaze.

The Charles Schulz Museum evacuated the late cartoonist's desk and chair ahead of the fire, which burned down his home. Courtesy of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center.

The Charles Schulz Museum evacuated the late cartoonist’s desk and chair ahead of the fire, which burned down his home. Courtesy of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center.

“I am grateful that the museum in Santa Rosa [still] exists to share the work of this wonderful man with the world,” Jean Schulz, who safely evacuated ahead of the fire, told the Washington Post.

Even those who have witnessed other California wildfires say the current conflagration is unprecedented. The artist Stuart Palley told artnet News that the disaster is “a tragedy unlike anything I’ve seen in my career photographing wildfires.” Palley just completed a five-day shoot documenting the damage as a follow-up to his series “Terra Flamma: Wildfires at Night,” shot in Southern California in 2014 and 2015.

But even as they reel from the loss of their homes—and, in some cases, their life’s work—many artists are already pouring their harrowing experiences back into their art.

Brian Fies, A Fire Story, page 10. Courtesy of Brian Fies.

Brian Fies, A Fire Story, page 10. Courtesy of Brian Fies.

Graphic novelist Brian Fies, who won the prestigious Eisner Award for comics for his book Mom’s Cancer, lost his Santa Rosa home, his art, and all his personal possessions last Monday. Over the next several days, he began furiously drawing an 18-page comic about the tragedy titled A Fire Story.

On the opening page of the comic, Fies notes that the document is “not to his usual standards.” Normally, he would labor for weeks on a project of this size. “I did this over parts of four days using a bad brush pen and art supplies from Target—Sharpie pens, highlighters and crummy paper—because Target was the only open store I could find within 20 miles,” he wrote on his blog.

Thousands of homes have been destroyed in this firestorm,” he wrote in the comic’s final lines. “Ours was one.”

Pamela Bennett shared these photographs of herself and the remains of her burned art studio on her Go Fund Me page. Courtesy of Pamela Bennett.

Pamela Bennett shared these photographs of herself and the remains of her burned art studio on her Go Fund Me page. Courtesy of Pamela Bennett.

In many cases, artists must come to grips with the loss not only of their homes and possessions, but also of decades worth of artworks—an important source of income. North of Santa Rosa in Middletown, artist Pamela Bennett lost her studio, library, and 30 years’ worth of art overnight. “I am now faced with no way to pay off medical bills accumulated over the past year, and no way to fund ongoing anti-cancer treatments,” she wrote on a Go Fund Me page, which has currently raised over $4,600.

The photographer Norma I. Quintana was preparing to travel to Puerto Rico, where she grew up, to photograph those affected by Hurricane Maria. Instead, she had to grapple with a disaster closer to home. She lost both her home and studio, reports the San Francisco Chronicle, which has been running a series of stories on artists affected by the wildfires.

“You can’t imagine,” Quintana told artnet News. “We thought we were going to come back, but it’s just ashes and melted steel.” She’s begun a new photo series, “Forage From Fire,” using her iPhone to document what little she’s been able to pull from the rubble.

Norma I. Quintana, <em>Forage From Fire #3</em>. Courtesy of the artist.

Norma I. Quintana, Forage From Fire #3. Courtesy of the artist.

“I had a pretty unique home as an artist,” Quintana added, noting that she would buy art with proceeds from every print she sold. Artists with work in her collection, including Sally Mann, have already reached out with offers to replace the destroyed material.

The fires also did not spare the home of sculptor Clifford Rainey, the chair of the glass program at the California College of the Arts in Oakland. Although he heats glass up to 2,900 degrees to create his sculptures, he still saw his life’s work melted and destroyed in Napa’s Atlas Fire, as reported by the Chronicle.

“Literally every single piece that I owned, all the way back to college” is now gone, Rainey told artnet News. “It was all boxed up and safe, I thought.” Instead, in the middle of the night, with 15 minutes’ warning, he and his wife were forced to evacuate with little more than the clothes on their backs and a few sketchbooks.

“I’m still trying to come to grips with it,” he added, noting that support from the artistic community has been key in getting through the crisis. Rainey hopes to create an inventory of whatever work has survived. “I’m really lucky; I’ve got a lot of stuff in museums,” he said.

Laura Kimpton's <em>LOVE</em> sculpture survived the wildfire that destroyed much of Paradise Ridge Winery in Northern California. Courtesy of Gillian Byck Overholser, via Facebook.

Laura Kimpton’s LOVE sculpture survived the wildfire that destroyed much of Paradise Ridge Winery in Northern California. Courtesy of Gillian Byck Overholser, via Facebook.

Despite the widespread damage caused by the raging fires, there is still hope amid the ashes. At the Paradise Ridge Winery in Santa Rosa, all the buildings were destroyed, as was this year’s grape harvest. Surviving unscathed, however, is Laura Kimpton and Jeff Schomberg’s LOVE sculpture, along with other artworks in the vineyard’s sculpture garden.

Originally created for Nevada’s Burning Man gathering in 2007, the piece had become a popular photo backdrop for winery weddings. Now, it’s become a different kind of viral sensation. A photo of the still-standing sculpture has been shared thousands of times on Facebook as a symbol of Northern California’s determination to overcome the devastation of the fires.

The week of October 8 was the deadliest week of wildfire in California history. Ten separate conflagrations in the northern part of the state left at least 40 people dead and 5,700 structures burned, according to CNN.

Rainey is among many now seeking relief. He has filed a claim with FEMA that will allow him to stay at a hotel while he tries to figure out what to do next. “We’re officially disaster survivors,” he said. “We’re just trying to take one day at a time.”


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