Response by North Bay artists offers inspiration, sanctuary after 2017 fires
When wildfires swept through Sonoma County in 2017, Jeff Nathanson was entering his second month as the new executive director of Sonoma County Museum in downtown Santa Rosa. He promptly opened the museum to the public for free as a haven from the destruction and a break from the public shelters housing victims.
“The fires were on a Monday, and by Wednesday, we had put the word out that the museum was safe,” he said. “We had power. We could offer a moment of tranquil refuge.”
Even after that terrifying and deadly initial week, the fires would burn for another two weeks, threatening tens of thousands of homes across the region. In the months that followed, arts venues all over Sonoma County responded with fire-themed exhibits, concerts, poetry recitals and more, not only to raise money for fire victims but also to raise the spirits of the entire community. It was a reflection of the sanctuary the arts community provided to a disaster-shaken public.
Time after time, the arts sector nationwide has played a similar role, stepping up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., and in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which affected 24 states in 2012.
It's the day after the 9/11 attacks that lingers in Kerry McCarthy's mind as vividly as the infamous day itself.
“In troubled times, people are looking for a connection,” said McCarthy, now vice president of the New York Community Trust. “The morning of Sept. 12, people were going out to eat. In New York, people generally mind their own business, but the weeks following 9/11 brought people together.”
The New York Community Trust and other civic improvement organizations moved quickly to put art exhibits and live performances in storefronts just blocks away from ground zero.
“People wanted to get back downtown,” McCarthy said. “And organizers were trying to rebuild downtown, and bring people back.”
The October 2017 fires killed 40 people in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties and destroyed more than 6,200 Northern California homes. The toll on the arts community was deep and wide, inflicting damage and debt that amounted to tens of thousands of dollars for many of those surveyed in the disaster's wake.
The second, less visible wave of the catastrophe was the emotional upheaval - a reckoning with unimaginable loss and an overwhelming sensation of being alone.
Nathanson's response and inspiration came from his previous experience as executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton, New Jersey, where Superstorm Sandy knocked out power lines and shut down much of the city, including the council's arts center.
“The public library across the street opened its doors and was there for people. It really made an impression on me.”
In the fires of 2017, as first responders battled the persistent flames and rescued residents, health care professionals worked to heal the wounded and crews cleared charred debris, there were others at work from the start. The artists, musicians, poets and the rest of the artistic community began to respond, many of them within the first hours or days.
“Don't forget the arts,” said Dr. Stephen Seager of Cotati. “The arts give you a chance to unlock your feelings and deal with your emotions.”
Seager treats emotional trauma for a living. Working as an emergency psychiatrist at the Contra Costa Medical Center in Walnut Creek - “All I deal with are disasters” - Seager has learned the tragedy plunges people into isolation until they share their experiences.
Seager found his own artistic outlet by producing the documentary film “Urban Inferno,” about the first eight hours of the Tubbs fire. It debuted July 17 last year to sold-out local audiences at Santa Rosa's Roxy Stadium 14 movie theater and moved the next day to the nearby Third Street Cinemas, where it ran for another six weeks, raising $35,000 for fire relief.
He also drew strength from the creative efforts of others, including “Ashes Fell Like Snow,” an outdoor exhibit of Los Angeles photographer Roman Cho's portraits of fire victims in December at Santa Rosa's Old Courthouse Square.
“It really helped me when I went down to look at the photos at the square,” Seager said. “When you're dealing with a tragic event, it's hard to process. You get to a point where you're reaching out to others. The arts give you a sense that you're not alone.”
An artist's work up in flames
By its very nature, a sudden life-threatening disaster isolates its victims, said Maureen Buckley, formerly a psychologist and therapist in Boston and now interim dean of social sciences at Sonoma State University.