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.

“It affects your mind, body and emotions but it's a diffused sort of pattern,” she said. “Traditional talk therapy isn't always the most effective, because you don't have words for what you're feeling. The arts have a way of accessing feelings you don't even understand. It's a search for meaning. You can start painting a picture and you don't even know where it's coming from.”

For 73-year-old painter Bill Gittins of Santa Rosa, the tragedy has sparked a fresh beginning, albeit an initially painful one. The Tubbs fire destroyed his studio across the road from Paradise Ridge Winery, including 140 paintings he had created over the past 30 years, valued at several thousand dollars - many of them bucolic Wine Country landscapes. Only eight pieces that happened to be on exhibit elsewhere the night of the fires were spared.

By December, however, Gittins was back at his easel at the Fulton Crossing Gallery. He has produced 35 new works so far, none of them directly reflecting the devastation caused by the fires.

“I didn't need to go there, but there's no doubt my paintings have changed,” he said. “What stuck in my mind were the late fall colors prior to the fires. Now, my paintings have much brighter colors.”

Gittins is far from the only artist hit hard by the fires. A report issued in September by Northern California Grantmakers - a San Francisco-based organization that coordinates funding for nonprofits, government and businesses to address regional social issues - concluded that the North Bay arts community was profoundly and disproportionately impacted by the fires.

More than half of the North Bay's arts organizations have lost income. Nearly two thirds of the artists affected by the fires saw their studios completely destroyed and nearly a quarter of those artists lost not only studios, but their homes as well. Musicians lost instruments and rehearsal spaces. The report gave the median total financial loss among artist respondents in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties as $77,000, although local officials believe it may be much higher.

A force for fundraising

Much of the artistic community's response to the fires has come in the form of fundraising events. The single biggest effort was the Band Together concert with Metallica held at San Francisco's AT&T Park in November 2017, which raised $15 million, followed by Band Together 2 with Red Hot Chili Peppers the next month, raising another $4 million.

The producers of the annual BottleRock festival in Napa hosted three North Bay concerts at the end of 2017, featuring Michael Franti at Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, Counting Crows at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park and Train at the JaM Cellars Ballroom in Napa. Those shows raised $422,000.

But to BottleRock CEO Dave Graham, the shows themselves had an impact that went far beyond monetary terms.

“Music changes the chemistry in our brains. It lifts our moods,” Graham said. “Healing can be a function of music, not only in times of tragedy but in our everyday lives.”

To headliner Michael Franti, his performance was cathartic for audience and artist alike.

“Before the fundraiser for the Napa/Sonoma fires, I was overwhelmed with grief,” he said. “When the concert started, I asked people who'd lost their homes to put their hands up and about a third of the people there raised their hands. I saw more than one family in tears, but during the show I saw people letting go.”

The concerts and shows commanded the public's attention, but behind the scenes, massive unseen efforts were carried out by organizations like Creative Sonoma, a division of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. The entity is dedicated to supporting the county's arts community with networking and direct aid in the form of rants to recipients ranging from individual artists like Gittins to museums, arts centers and other organizations.

“In the moment, we just put one foot in front of the other to do anything we could to help,” Kristin Madsen, director of Creative Sonoma, said of the overall fire recovery effort. “In hindsight, the overall impact of the arts in helping our community heal becomes apparent, and gratifying.”

Aiding in ongoing recovery

From organizational meetings to fundraisers - at exhibits, shows and concerts - the ultimate motive was the same, to promote healing after a traumatic experience. Once the emotions have been brought out in the open, they can be shared and understood. Efforts to bring as many people as possible into the recovery process have been ongoing.

Maya Khosla, almost halfway through her two-year term as Sonoma County's Poet Laureate, has initiated the fire-inspired “Local Legacy Project,” a series of participatory poetry readings, which will result in two documentary films.

She has recorded readings of poetry by first responders, fire victims and others at public events and by students in local schools. Khosla, also a biologist and filmmaker, is incorporating film footage documenting the rapid recovery of natural environments like Pepperwood Preserve and Trione-Annadel State Park as a counterpoint to the slower emotional recovery faced by human beings.

“I am currently seeing a lot of new energy at the readings,” she said. “People are not necessarily ignoring what happened to them, but they are putting it in the past, and into context.”

Last summer, Sonoma Academy humanities teacher Brandon Spars moderated the first of the two-night “Thicker Than Smoke” benefit event at the Green Music Center for first responders and fire victims, with almost a dozen of them taking the stage to recount their firsthand experiences with the fires, and the emotions they endured.

“A lot of people who weren't directly affected by the fires had moved on by then,” Spars said. “They had been sensitive for the first few months, but they're no longer dealing with the aftermath of the fires on a daily basis. At this event, all of us went back to the moment the fires happened. We were all together on the same page.”

The second night of “Thicker Than Smoke” brought country music star Brad Paisley to the stage for an evening of music and stories.

Decades ago, Dana Gioia, the Sonoma County-based former California Poet Laureate and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts caused a stir in literary and academic circles with an essay titled “Can Poetry Matter?”

For him, the answer always has been an emphatic “Yes!” and he extends that sentiment to include not only poetry, but all of the arts.

“The fires terrified everyone, and people are slightly ashamed of their deepest fears,” Gioia said. “What art does is pre-empt normal conversation and go right into our deepest psyches. It doesn't have to ask permission. Songs, art and stories all communicate things under the surface to this cross-section of society in ways that nothing else can.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or On Twitter @danarts.

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