Sonoma Stories: Artist’s tribute to fire victims isn’t easy to look at, but he’d like people to see it

'Car Candelabra' is the flame-blasted frame of what prior to a year ago was a retired Mark West Springs couple’s gloriously restored, white-over-green, 1957 Ford T-Bird.|

Art isn’t always pretty.

Bob Van Breda can do pretty, and whimsical and charming. The 67-year-old artist, who lives part time in Sonoma Valley and in Los Angeles, delights in his gilded mousetraps and his classic, eraser-butted pencil sculptures ranging from life-sized to larger than torpedoes.

And just try not to crack a smile as you stand in his backyard and behold the 282 pairs of shoes from friends and fellow artists that he has hanging from a tree.

But Van Breda also can get edgy.

He does it often with artwork he creates from what he calls detritus - junk, litter, barn storage and other stuff he finds. More than 40 works created from such items formed his recent show, “Lost and Found,” at the Palm Springs Art Museum.

Since last year’s North Bay firestorms, many survivors have come to treasure as art simple, salvaged possessions - a chipped and heat-stained teacup, a distorted keepsake coin, what remains of a child’s spelling bee trophy. Legions of professional and amateur artists have used and are using such relics, and also all manner of conventional art supplies, to create tangible tributes to loss, survival, and a community’s caring and recovery.

Van Breda, too, has completed a piece inspired by the mass casualties of the 2017 fires. It’s a big one that’s been allotted some exhibit space at this time of remembering, but that Van Breda would like more widely seen.

He calls it “Car Candelabra.” It’s the flame-blasted frame of what prior to a year ago was a retired Mark West Springs couple’s gloriously restored, white-over-green, 1957 Ford T-Bird.

Van Breda attached to it flea-market candelabras that hold 44 white candles, one for each of the people lost to the fires.

When Van Breda shares the piece with a visitor to his garage, he takes up a butane grill lighter and gives each candle a flame.

The piece, which when fully lighted gives off a fair bit of heat, is powerful but not pleasant to look at. As a visual artist who fled his home a year ago and witnessed a historic tragedy, Van Breda said he felt obligated to create a reflection.

“I hope I have provided a small piece to this monumental event,” he said.

“Car Candelabra” will be on view from Oct. 24 through Nov. 11 at di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, on Carneros Highway between Sonoma and Napa. A candlelighting ceremony will be held the evening of Oct. 1.

Van Breda is exploring other possible opportunities to share the piece, and he’s especially hopeful to find a space to display it in Santa Rosa. Among the challenges: The first anniversary of the fires is upon us and organizations conducting observances already have their exhibition space allotted - and Car Candelabra takes up a lot of room.

The seed for the piece was planted in Van Breda’s mind shortly after the Nuns fire chased him from the home between Glen Ellen and Sonoma that he shares with his wife, Dallas Price-Van Breda, when she’s not in Los Angeles. She’s a businesswoman, world-class mountain climber, champion of the arts and honorary trustee of the University of Southern California.

Bob Van Breda was alone the night of the fires when his home seemed to come under attack. “What it was,” he said, “was acorns hitting the windows at 70 mph.”

Seeing the now infamous glow in the sky, he got out, joining the bumper-to-bumper exodus from Sonoma Valley. Soon, he said, “Dallas and I were getting emails and calls from friends all around the world asking us if we were OK.”

They were, and their home was, too. But neighbors and friend lost their homes. As with thousands of others, Bob Van Breda returned to Sonoma Valley when it was cleared for repopulation and his heart sank at the sprawling scenes of devastation.

He quite naturally began to imagine what he might create from fire debris, and how he might obtain it. He has fashioned art from old bedsprings, a household brush and piece of wire, rusty rabbit cages, steam radiators, a ball of wire, a glove he found in Moscow, a piece of newspaper he picked off a street in the capital of Qatar.

Van Breda savors telling the story behind each piece.

He knew he would not trespass onto the ruins of homes, as many did, to look for salvage. “I was afraid I might be violating their space,” he said.

He’d considered making something from one of Sonoma County’s thousands of incinerated cars when, while driving not far from home, he spotted just such a car on a flatbed truck. He followed it all the way to a great lot in American Canyon, a vast graveyard for burned automobiles.

He walked among them and found himself drawn to the flame-stripped hull of a classic Thunderbird. He arranged to buy it from the former owners’ insurance company.

“I paid $124 for it,” he said.

The story of “Car Candelabra” entered its next chapter when Van Breda had the wreck trucked to his driveway, where he removed the engine, transmission, differential and gas tank.

He installed a new undercarriage, supported by four 8-inch rubber wheels. What remains of the T-Bird weighs maybe 800 pounds and quite easily can be rolled around.

Van Breda placed lights underneath it. An he went shopping for used candleholders.

He snatched them up at the Alameda Swap Meet and the Rose Bowl Flea Market. Most hold a single candle, and seven are doubles, representative of the seven couples who perished in the October fires.

Van Breda affixed the candle holders to the ravaged T-Bird’s hood and trunk. When he shows the piece to a visitor, he reverently lights and, minutes later, snuffs the candles.

With such art, he said, he seeks to “get people to feel something.”

With the approach of the fires’ one-year anniversary, he aims to get the T-Bird out onto the road and to where it can be seen.

You can reach Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and

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