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The Power of Art
— Napa, Sonoma, & Marin


Art can memorialize a joyous occasion, but it can also strengthen, inspire, encourage and support us in difficult and challenging times. Words such as “difficult” and challenging” hardly capture the horror and devastation of the October 2017 Sonoma County wildfires. Like all Sonoma County residents, Art Trails artists were deeply impacted by the fires, especially the seven who lost their homes, studios and all of their art.



Art can memorialize a joyous occasion, but it can also strengthen, inspire, encourage and support us in difficult and challenging times. Words such as “difficult” and challenging” hardly capture the horror and devastation of the October 2017 Sonoma County wildfires. Like all Sonoma County residents, Art Trails artists were deeply impacted by the fires, especially the seven who lost their homes, studios and all of their art.

Art Trails is an annual juried open studio event, spread over two autumn weekends. Art lovers and other visitors are invited to enjoy and explore some of Sonoma’s country roads and scenic corridors, talk with artists in their studios and purchase outstanding art. The mediums include painting, print-making, sculpture, ceramics, fiber arts, fine jewelry, art glass, mixed media, woodwork, mosaic and photography. After the catastrophic wildfires, the 2017 Art Trails event, which was to include 141 artists, was postponed a week.

In no time at all, though, Art Trails artists responded to the fire. Many began organizing and carrying out countless acts of compassion and generosity to help heal and benefit artist colleagues and the Sonoma County community.

Sonoma County Art Trails artists devoted their time, talent and art to help rebuild, rejuvenate and revitalize spirits and hearts. As one Art Trails artist eloquently expressed it, “Artists are the first responders for the soul.” The following vignettes highlight some of their many creative and soul- nourishing responses to the 2017 disaster.


“I have always believed in the healing power of art,” says mixed-media artist Luann Udell. “It healed me first, turning me from a resentful backseat driver in the journey of life to making me a whole person again.” She says that in the years since, she’s seen firsthand how her art has raised the spirit of others. During the first weekend of Art Trails 2017, Udell, who makes stunning jewelry inspired by the Lascaux cave paintings, had many visitors whose homes were compromised or destroyed by the fire. “Nobody asked for anything,” Udell says, “but they got a gift from me — a necklace here, a bracelet there.” In her talks with visitors, she routinely asks them about their own creative place in the world. Many, she says, are self-effacing: they are humble about their “hobbies,” or don't see their work as “creative.” She continues, “We talk. I share my belief [that] there are many ways to bring light into the world, different ways to be a force for good. Teach. Heal. Sing. Write. Witness. Make. Grow. Nurture. Invent. Laugh. Love.” Udell says that seeing her visitors reconsider the value of what they bring to the world let’s her see her own story come full-circle, “a pebble tossed into a wide lake, creating ripples I cannot see, but know are there.” She sums it up this way: “We all have a place in the world. Art is how we have our say. It's a powerful voice. Use it.”

“All ten were promptly claimed,” says painter Linda Sorensen. She is referring to the ten large, well- framed oil paintings she contributed to an event at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore. It was open only to fire victims, who were given credits to use to select items to replace ones they had lost. “I even received an email from one person, with a photo of the painting he chose hanging on the wall of his new lodging,” says Sorensen. “I figured that when people have lost all of the things they had on their walls, large was the way to go to give them impact.”

“I believe in recycling goods, services and money within our community,” says painter and printmaker Barbara Kelley. She made her philosophy tangible by donating a painting to “Art from the Heart,” an event at Sonoma State University to raise money for Creative Sonoma and its fire relief fund. Kelley’s piece was purchased by Dr. Judy Sakaki, president of the university, who lost her home in the Santa Rosa firestorm. Kelley also donated artwork to the Fulton X Gallery, for a reception at which fire victims could select a piece to take home. Kelley’s own studio was damaged by intense smoke, and despite her own personal business losses, she donated $5,000 to a local fire relief fund. In addition, she invited clients who had lost their homes to visit her studio and select a new piece of art at no charge. “One collector said he misses his artwork more than anything else,” she recounts. “He looked at the artworks every morning, and it gave him comfort and enjoyment every day.” To Kelley’s studio assistant, who was evacuated during the fires and who later helped Kelley clean her smoke-damaged studio (“Twice!”), Kelley “recycled [her] gratitude” by giving her assistant art supplies, frames and a gift certificate to a local art store. She topped it off with classes in printmaking, oil and encaustic painting.

In a similar vein, painter Jan Thomas and her art classes came to the aid of one of her pastel students. He had lost everything in the fire: not only his home, but also his pastel paintings and supplies. Thomas’ two classes donated new and gently used supplies, and they purchased a $350 gift certificate for Riley Street, the local art supply store, which generously gave a 40% discount to fire victims. Thomas also provided a month of free classes for the student when he was able to return.

Mixed-media artist Gerald Huth reports that their daughter in New York kept them posted on what was happening: in Forestville, television and Internet service, as well as telephone landline service, were down. Friends who had fled Oakmont sought refuge with the Huths, and during the next nine days, the Huths kept their van packed in case they too had to evacuate. Huth says that the arts community pulled together remarkably, helping those whose lives were shattered. In the aftermath of the fires, Huth created a collage series, “Inferno,” based on his drawings and photos of the ruins. Later, while he was away for two months, he lent his studio to artists who had lost theirs. Huth contributed not only to his fellow artists, but also to his collectors. “Every one of my collectors who lost their work will receive a replacement piece from me, free of charge,” says Huth. “We create our art to bring joy and inspiration, but also for solace in trying times such as these. Our community will recover.”

Painter Bill Gittins, despite losing his own home, studio and all of his art in the fires, opened his heart to help others through his financial contributions to the recovery effort. He donated the net proceeds from the sale of giclées (fine art reproduction prints) of two of his plein air works: Santa Rosa Round Barn, 1899-2017 and Close to Town, but Country. The Fountaingrove Round Barn, built in 1899 as part of a Utopian colony and considered one of Santa Rosa’s iconic landmarks, was consumed in the fire on October 9, 2017. The original painting, created in 2014, was part of Gittins’ personal collection; it perished in the fire. The second piece is an image of the Bastoni Ranch, which was established in 1905. Gittins painted it in 1993, an important image since the barn and five outbuildings were destroyed by the fire; only the main house and one barn survived. From the sale of the giclées, Gittins was able to make a $2,000 gift to Pepperwood Preserve, which sustained damage to 80% of its 3200 acres. He requested that the preserve use the money to replace the motion-detection cameras used to track animals’ movements within the preserve. Along with all of his other altruistic efforts, Gittins also donated “Round Barn” giclées to be given away free to fire refugees.

Two couples who are clients of sculptor Jan Schultz told her that her metal sculptures were the only survivors of the fires and asked that she “babysit” them until they could find temporary homes. In addition to doing that, Schultz created four sculptures from metal salvaged from a family’s home and then offered them to the couple. Although initially reluctant to accept the sculptures, the couple came to her studio to see them. Schultz said that from the looks on their faces, it was clear that the sculptures belonged with them. She later learned the significance of the salvaged metal from which she had made the sculptures. The bent, twisted saw blade in Spunky originally belonged to the man’s father, and the three “arrows” in Light Hearted came from a lamp the woman’s birth mother had given her. “I had no idea about the sentimentality of the metal I selected,” Schultz confesses. “It was simply metal that demanded my attention.” If Schultz wondered whether she had made the right decisions, it was put to rest by the woman’s departing words. “This is so healing,” she told Schultz. “It’s the most peaceful and best I’ve felt since the fires.”


Jeweler Michelle Hoting, seeking a way to channel her nervous energy into something useful, says she felt helpless in the days following the fires. Then an idea struck her: create a pendant, a “flaming wine leaf, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.” Each would be one-of-a-kind and engraved “Wine Country Strong” on the back. She posted a picture of one, along with donation information, on her Facebook page, and orders began rushing in. “I’ll never question the power of art again,” says Hoting. In addition to raising her own spirits, she raised and donated $9,800 to Redwood Credit Union’s Fire Relief Fund.

“The opportunity to raise funds through our art sales for fire victims in Sonoma County, and especially for our fellow artists who lost their homes and studios, gave our sales purpose and helped us share our luck of being spared,” says plein air painter Teri Sloat, who donated 25% of her sales to these funds. She says it’s also been a pleasure to help clients replace their art by working with them on commissions. Her favorite example is a client in a long-term rental with bare walls. The client told Sloat she’d like a large piece of folk art with bright colors to get her through her rental period until she has her own home again.

Ceramicts Forrest Lesch-Middelton was in Tennessee teaching a workshop when the first hit. When he returned to Sonoma County a week later, the region was still engulfed in smoke. Grateful that he lived in Petaluma, a town untouched by the flames, he quickly reached out to CERF, the Craft Emergency Relief Fund. A CERF supporter in many ways previously, he notified them that he would be donating 10% of his Art Trails proceeds to their general fund. “Drawing from my earnings at Art Trails was the perfect opportunity for me to give to CERF,” he explains. “Art Trails is the Sonoma art community in a nutshell.” After the fires, Lesch-Middelton decided to offer additional assistance, but in a way only a ceramicist could: a discount on his handmade architectural wall and floor tiles to anyone in Sonoma Country rebuilding from the fires.

Just a week before Art Trails 2017 was to begin, fires threatening the town of Sonoma were raging on three sides of the Boyes Hot Springs area, where painter Kathleen Truak lives. She chose to leave, and when she Kathy Truax’s “Alarm” abstraction emerges with a relief response.icist Forrest Lesch-Middelton was in Tennessee teaching a workshop when the fires hit. returned five days later, she learned that although her neighborhood had been spared, smoke still hung in the air and there were ashes on her studio floor. “I feel so grateful to those who fought so hard to save us!” she declares. With Art Trails postponed a week, she had just enough time to finish preparing. She had a very strong event, a boon in many ways since she had pledged 10% of her earnings to a fund for artists who had lost everything in the fire. In early 2018 Chroma Gallery in Santa Rosa asked artists for works created after the fires. The theme was “Healing through Art.” Truak donated an abstraction in which a figure, poised to respond to an emergency of some sort, emerges. The artist had special empathy for those affected by the fires. Earlier that year, an ancient oak had toppled and crashed through her roof in several places. She had been in her completely restored home only two weeks when the fires erupted. “I didn’t suffer terrible losses [from the fires], as many Sonoma County artists did,” she says, “but I had little trouble imagining their trauma, having lost so much of my house to a prior disaster.”

Like Truak, painter Carolyn Wilson donated a percentage of her proceeds from the 2017 Art Trails sales to help fire victims. She donated all of the proceeds from sales of her fine art giclée reproductions of Fountaingrove Round Barn, more than $2,000, to the Redwood Credit Union North Bay Fire Fund. Wilson donated 100% of the money from the sale of the original painting of the Fountaingrove Round Barn to the Sebastopol Center for the Arts’ Art Trails Artist Relief Fund. In addition, she donated part of the money she raised to help firefighters who had lost their own homes.

Painter Tom Swearingen was another artist whose contributions were remarkable. He took a singular approach to supporting the recovery efforts: his Roses for Resilience campaign. On his Facebook page, he pledged to paint one rose painting a day — roses being symbolic of the city of Santa Rosa — and use the proceeds from these one-of-a-kind pieces to support the fire relief fund. Within a few weeks, 365 orders for the $95 artworks were placed and paid for, garnering more than $34,000 for the fund. When Swearingen saw the profound impact and magnitude of how healing the roses were, he dedicated himself to painting at least three roses a day. By mid-June 2018 the grateful recipients had received their precious paintings. And Swearingen didn’t stop there: he is replacing for free any of his works that clients lost in the fire.

The Art Trails Steering Committee, working with Sebastopol Center for the Arts, created the Art Trails Artists Relief Fund. The Art Trails artists who were still able to open their studios during the 2017 Art Trails told the public about the fund. Additionally, many Art Trails artists donated a percentage of their sales to it. Ultimately, more than $29,000 was raised and divided equally among the seven devastated artists, a testament to how deeply the public and the Art Trails community care about their artists.


What do a bell, a bucket of coins and metal stars and hearts have in common? The answer: sculptor Rick Butler. After the fires, a commissioned bell and some patio furniture were all that remained of one of his client’s belongings. The client asked Butler if he would refurbish the bell, but with one change: the addition of some red to the bell’s fire-burnished patina, an acknowledgment of the fire. Butler gave an enthusiastic yes to the project, and a little over a week later, the bell was reborn. Says Butler, “By the smile on his face and the tear in his eye (and mine!), I knew this was more than some piece of metal. It was a start to healing and a help for moving on.” While at a Coffey Park property that had burned, Butler spotted a bucket of darkened bits; he quickly realized they were coins. The owners were elated: they had looked for it, but not been able to find it. From other metal he salvaged at the site, Butler created a sculpture for the owners. And the stars and hearts? Butler created them out of thin-gauge metal and put words of hope and encouragement on them. He made them to hand out at a November art show to anyone who had lost a home, a loved one or a pet. He says the best rewards were the smiles, tears, hugs, appreciation and surprise when he handed someone a star or a heart. Butler had thought the stars and hearts would be a one- time project, but seeing the response, he concluded, “This would be ongoing as long as my hands could cut and shape the metal that gave a smile to anyone who needed it.”

Making house calls with art in hand was how painter Marsha Connell sought to lift spirits in the aftermath of the fires. She gifted a painting to a landscape contractor, an avid art collector who had lost both his home and his business in the fire. It brightened both his cramped, interim quarters and his spirits. Fellow artist Bill Gittins and his wife, Pat, lost their art collection, as well as Bill’s paintings. Connell’s gift to them brought back happy memoriesof painting together at Pepperwood Preserve, and it made their small, temporary apartment feel less sterile. Numerous other recipients of Connell’s works had their temporary lodgings brightened by her gifts of art and her thoughtfulness.

Painter Peggy Sebera is another “have painting — will travel” artist who generously transported a new painting to her clients’ home in San Jose. The clients, a physician and his wife, contacted Sebera in January. The fire destroyed their home and paintings, and they wanted a replacement. Not only did Sebera deliver — figuratively and literally — she promised them a print of the painting they had lost. “They were so pleased,” says Sebera. “They had me for lunch and a long visit. This deepened our friendship.”


Mixed-media artist Jenny-Lynn Hall found a noteworthy way to contribute to the community’s recover after the fires: she created a place of solace. After pondering how she could help, she decided to open her studio as a space in which people could feel at peace, and perhaps be inspired. To create the environment she wanted, she incorporated a Buddhist altar where visitors could leave prayers that she later offered at the Stone Creek Zen Center, where she is a board member. Hall also displayed large abstract paintings in her studio, and on the floor, she created a piece called “Containment Lines,” which spoke to both the containment of the fires and uncontrollable energy. Some visitors came to the studio to experience normalcy or be inspired; others came with a need to escape. “After this experience,” says Hall, “I became more convinced of the ability of art and design to heal, of making the world a more beautiful place from the inside out.”

With the postponement of the 2017 Art Trails weekends and an anticipated decrease in visitors after the fires, printmaker Caren Catterall concluded “we could all use some art therapy.” Her studio became the setting. She invited visitors to make monotypes (single, unique prints) with a phoenix theme. “As we spent time together, we talked about our experience and the fires,” she explains. The monotypes that resulted from participants’ collective efforts were subsequently sold as a fundraiser for artists whose studios had burned. Catterall marveled about one visitor in particular, a four-year-old who, for more than three hours, stayed absolutely focused on making art — and came back the next weekend to do more.

For two weeks after the raging October fire, painter Donna DeLaBriandias did not know if her home or studio had burned. Although her property was spared, 90 of her Bennett Valley neighbors lost their homes. Despite the desire to retreat to the solitude of her studio after the trauma of the fires, DeLaBriandias knew that painting in nature would refill her creative spirit and that of her fellow painters. That insight inspired her to organize several plein air outings with artist friends, some of whom had lost everything. “Nature has always healed my soul and made me feel complete,” says DeLaBriandias, “and I wanted to experience this with other artists.”


Art Trails artists instinctively inspire and energize the Sonoma County community and help fellow artists, but many also document significant, lifechanging events. Painter Lucy Martin, who does botanical art, has started a series of paintings called “After the Fire” that will show the fires’ effects on plant life in the burned areas, as well as document the recovery. The first painting in the series, Madrone Bark — After the Fire, shows the flames’ amazing, often beautiful effects on six of these trees. Another painting will show a burned stump with hundreds of tiny golden mushrooms as its base, a type of mushroom that only appears after a burn.

Woodworker Michael Palace was drawn to the burned forest, where crews were cutting trees, stacking the resulting logs and branches, and creating mountains of wood chips. Palace sawed usable chunks from four types of native trees, deciding to make bowls out of them. “It seems like a very small thing, but it was a symbol of hope,” he says, “and making something good out of tragedy struck me as the right thing to do.” He hopes his “Phoenix” bowls will bring some joy to the people who own them. Says Palace, “There is always something to be done in the face of loss to bring life and beauty back into our lives.”

Sculptor Peter Compton says that the tragedy of the fires helped clarify for him the importance of making art. “After we had taken care of emergency preparations and evacuated the family, pets and chickens, I returned to our studio during the day to spray down the roof and work on this sculpture,” he recounts. Resurrection, the piece he was working on shows Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, rising from a toppled column. Even as the fires were descending down Bennett Peak towards his house, he continued to work on it. “It helped keep me centered in the chaos,” he explained, “but it was a strange feeling to work on something that might be destroyed the next day.” He says that he had decided on the subject matter and the title before the fires, but that it has now taken on a new meaning.

The week of the fires, painter Mary Vaughan spent hours sitting and talking with clients and friends in her studio, surrounded by her art. It was “a place for all that loss to land, or at least try to go,” she says, explaining that they talked, cried and were even able to laugh a bit. “In all of my years of showing and doing my utmost to put up new and poignant paintings, these fires taught me something profoundly revealing about art itself,” she says. “Despite every ugly thing that happens in life, there is beauty somewhere waiting near the fringes of despair, and nothing can completely keep that tender, yet powerful thing called ‘art’ down.” She continues, “I don’t mean “I don’t mean just the so-called artists, but those who love art an appreciate it and come to it for what it is, feeling its significance.”

As these vignettes illustrate, art communicates and chronicles in ways words cannot. With countless generous acts, Art Trails artists have given hope to and have lifted the spirits of the Sonoma County community and their fellow artists. Art is a universal language that transcends our differences, unites our hearts and souls, and lends strength, purpose and inspiration to face whatever may befall us. May all of us be so blessed as to see, appreciate and enjoy art in our lives.

Natural disasters have a way of bringing communities together. Today, numerous nonprofits continue to help those who suffered significant losses in the 2017 firestorms. Selecting this year’s Essential Guide nonprofit honoree was not easy, but one group stood out: the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. By supporting the Art Trails Artist Relief Fund, which was established by Sonoma Country Art Trails, many victims, including several of our clients, were helped. The Essential Guide supports honorees with a financial contribution and by bringing them to readers’ attention. We encourage you to join us in helping those still dealing with the fires’ aftermath.

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