Photo Credit: Local residents at Middletown Art Center making art about their experience of a major wildfire burning through their community. Photo by Middletown Art Center.
I stand in front of fire-blackened barbed wire, twisted into the shape of a big heart, hanging on the wall. Nearby, a burned branch emerges from the side of a head, whose mouth is wide open beneath squeezed-shut eyes. I see a group of photos next, one showing the white length of a huge ghost tree sprawling down a rusty-red hill. Across the room, bright wildflowers are painted meticulously in a perfect circle on an ash-gray background. Throughout the Middletown Art Center, the work of local artists commemorates the first anniversary of the Valley Fire. The exhibit demonstrates their capacity to find and share beauty in fire’s aftermath.
The small town of Middletown, in south Lake County (northern California), is trying to come back from multiple catastrophic fires. In 2015, the Valley Fire burned about half of the town as it grew to over 76,000 acres, killed four people, and destroyed 1,955 structures. As the third most destructive wildfire in state history, the fire drastically changed the environment and economy of the area’s rural communities. Just as the one-year mark of the Valley Fire neared, the Clayton Fire shockingly broke out near Middletown, burning nearly 4,000 acres and destroying 299 structures. Some residents who evacuated during the Valley Fire had to evacuate again. Including the Jerusalem Fire (27 structures; 25,000 acres) and the Rocky Fire (96 structures; 69,000 acres), there have been four major wildfires here within 14 months. Is it any wonder that people are moving away? But others have stayed and are working hard to keep the community together. One of these is Lisa Kaplan, artist and board member of the Middletown Art Center (MAC). “Every week, someone tells me they’re leaving,” she confides to me. “We say, ‘Don’t leave! We’ll recover!’ We are creating a reason to stay.”
MAC sits right in the middle of town, a cheery yellow building next to a corner lot dotted with sculptures. I visited during “Ashes to Art,” a juried exhibit honoring local artists’ experiences of the Valley Fire just a year ago. At the show’s opening event, over 250 friends and neighbors who lost homes came together to view artwork, hear music, dance and sing together. The art is adept, intense and varied – sculptures, furniture, paintings, photography, textiles, ceramics – and every piece has a highly personal story. Half of the exhibiting artists, including Lisa, lost their homes, studios or workplaces. Many used actual burned items, such as tools or branches, in their work. In one corner of the gallery, a pair of paintings hangs above a wooden table that has a burnt car jack stand as its base. The paintings depict the wild animals the artist saw while he was racing against the flow of evacuees, on his way to pick up a friend whose car wouldn’t start. When his friend was let back into the neighborhood several days later, he came across the jack stand in the ashes of his property. Another friend, a woodworker, assembled the table for him. This table is an example, and a metaphor, of how people in the community have come together to support each other after the fire.
Nine of the ten MAC board members lost their homes in the Valley Fire, which also burned the county’s Trailside Park where MAC members, as EcoArts of Lake County, had installed a celebrated sculpture walk amid the trees. Despite their individual anguish, they stepped up and opened the MAC gallery to the community with free art classes so that both adults and children could identify and express their difficult emotions: grief, anger, fear, frustration, loss, confusion. MAC also partnered with yoga and meditation practitioners, provided post-traumatic stress disorder workshops, offered insurance help, found local support for scholarships enabling people to continue art classes, and provided workspace for artists who had lost their studios. In commemoration of the one-year anniversary of the Valley Fire, MAC organized two art exhibitions, one “community” and one professional. The first displayed artworks by 72 community members. Many of them had participated in MAC’s healing arts program, “Community Works,” which provided opportunities for nearly 600 people to participate in free art classes and events for the two weeks preceding the Valley Fire anniversary. The second show, “Ashes to Art” followed. The next program, “Scorched by Fire,” was the first of MAC’s new Palette to Palate series. It brought together local winemakers and artists, as neighbors who were each directly impacted by the Valley Fire. “We try to always have something going on, bringing people together,” Lisa says. “Our supporters understand the importance of our role in community restoration and community development.”
With so many people and community functions affected by wildfire, it may not be so easy to separate who is a supporter from who is supported. The list of people and groups involved with MAC is growing. Valley Fire Phoenix Rising – a group focused on rebuilding better (via affordable housing, green design and local micro-businesses) – meets at MAC. Between art events, the school board candidates held a community forum there. Poets and musicians have begun to perform at MAC and a Christmas Art Market was held in December. Funds for MAC’s growth have been provided by the Lake Area Rotary Club Fire Relief Fund and the #LakeCountyRising Valley Fire Relief Fund, a joint project of the Lake County Wine Alliance, the Lake County Winery Association and the Lake County Winegrape Association, among others. Even MAC’s physical footprint is growing: while members are pursuing funds to reforest Trailside Park, the sculptures meant for last spring’s sculpture walk in the park are now in the previously vacant lot next door.
Art is the heart and hub of MAC’s activities and so is nature. Responding to the social and ecological devastation of catastrophic wildfire with the determination to recover has only given that focus more resonance. Lisa explains: “We know how healing art can be. It’s also reframing. Even before the wildflowers came up after the fire, which refreshed the reality for everyone. Even before that, artists could see that nature regenerating herself in action is an amazing experience. Hopefully it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, to go through such destruction. But it’s a privilege to go through nature’s regeneration – sublime.”
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