Like thousands of other Sonoma County residents, Susan Cornelis last fall made a pilgrimage to Coffey Park to see firsthand what the Tubbs fire had wrought.
But she brought along a sketch pad and paintbrush.
Cornelis belongs to a small group of artists using pen and watercolors to regularly capture scenes of the destruction and recovery of the northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood, as well as other Sonoma County areas struck by the worst wildfires in state history.
The Sebastopol-area artist typically spends no more than an hour on each sketch, whether of melted cars or, more recently, framers building the walls of new homes. She posts her art on social media, often with tales of those she encountered during her sketching.
The artwork, sometimes referred to as reportage illustration or urban sketching, presents images that are both similar and strikingly different from a photograph. Interest in such art is growing, with more than 200 Urban Sketchers chapters in more than 50 countries around the world, including one in the North Bay.
“I think it gets back to storytelling,” said Cornelis, 68, a former licensed social worker who holds sketching workshops. “But we’re doing it with a picture.”
The artists were drawn to the fire response and recovery images shortly after the October wildfires killed 24 residents and destroyed nearly 5,300 homes in Sonoma County. The Tubbs fire claimed four residents and more than 1,200 homes in Coffey Park.
In the aftermath, Cornelis and fellow artist Carole Flaherty began sketching firefighters temporarily staying at the Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds near Occidental, as well as scenes from the emergency operations center at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. They visited the remains of the Fountaingrove Round Barn and Paradise Ridge Winery. When allowed, they entered burned neighborhoods, capturing scenes of wrecked homes, debris cleanup and rebuilding.
“When there’s something that touches our hearts like this, there’s just more in it,” said Flaherty, a Sebastopol apple farmer and artist. “It’s more compelling.”
On Thursday, the two were joined by artist Bettina Armstrong as they sketched a new home rising on Brandee Lane in Coffey Park.
For Armstrong, a retired junior college counselor, the construction scene offered several compelling elements, including a dead tree along the street with a swirl of blackened branches that dominated the northern sky. She also noted the color orange found in the project’s portable toilet and in a worker’s safety vest, as well as the blue of a pickup parked on an adjacent driveway.
Sketching, Armstrong said, offers the chance to document a scene worth remembering. But working in a method known as “quick capture” means she doesn’t recreate all the objects and details that would show up in a photograph.
In sketching, she asks herself, “What am I going to represent? What am I going to let go?”
Immediately after the fires, the artists wondered whether they might be unwelcome in the fire-burned neighborhoods. But they said the response from workers and neighbors has been overwhelming positive.
In a construction zone, simply sitting on a collapsible stool with a sketchbook in hand is enough to attract attention. The artists regularly get friendly inquiries not only from construction workers but also from those who lost homes.