For almost two months after October’s firestorm wiped out her home and all physical trace of her life before that night, Helena Donzelli was unable to sift through the ash to see if anything might remain.
“I would drive by and just put my hand on the window of the car, tear up and say prayers. I couldn’t handle it. I just wanted to feel normal, and go through my normal routines,” said the artist, who for the past seven years had lived in a century-old home off Warm Springs Road in Glen Ellen. a charming place with an old claw foot tub and original wavy glass panes in the windows.
But then in early December she had occasion to visit the site with an inspector and her vision cleared. Suddenly, it was no longer just a mound of detritus. Certain objects started catching her eye from amid the ruins. There was the front plate of her Cuisinart, a pile of wrenches from her workshop, the top of her iron, the head of her hammer. Fragments of things that used to be part of her everyday life.
Miraculously she spotted a metal sculpture that she thought of as her personal logo — a heart with two angel wings extending out on either side. It had occupied a special place above her bed. It was perfectly intact in the ash.
Donzelli said she was overcome with a sense of wonder.
“I saw art,” she said. “Some things were twisted or mangled. But I just have so much respect for the things that survived the wickedness of that heat.”
She was inspired to gather up the fragments and create a piece of collage art embedding the random totems of her pre-fire life.
“These were things I loved and treasured and were a part of my life. I wanted to honor that. I wanted a reminder. When you walk away from everything in your pajamas you have nothing to look at but your memories,” she said.
She posted a picture of it on Facebook, and within 24 hours had heard from 15 fire victims asking her to make a piece of art for them, using the few scattered objects of their own that had been salvaged from the fire.
Time to rethink ‘stuff’
The flames of October have left thousands of people like Donzelli, re-evaluating their relationship with possessions, whether they were burned out of their home or not. They are pondering questions like, “What is most important to me?” and “What do I really need to live and be happy?” Even those who didn’t lose homes but warily watched the flames threaten their neighborhood during that crucial month, or who drove around with their valuables in their car after evacuating, are casting a critical eye on their stuff, knowing that in a matter of a few moments, it could be gone.
People are reacting in different ways, from trying desperately to recreate what was lost, to taking the opportunity to start over with a clean slate, or furiously purging all the extraneous stuff cramming their closets and cupboards, and creaming off only what they need or truly love.
Donzelli said the fire made her value things in a different way. Before the fire, she was a perfectionist when it came to her Christmas tree. Her ornaments were chosen for their appearance. But this year, every object hanging from the branches of her tree was given to her and it has changed how she views holiday decorating.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here