Art rises from ashes as North Bay welcomes 3 new exhibits one-year after devastating firestorms

At the one-year anniversary of last October's catastrophic firestorms, several museums are staging special art exhibits. 

There are three new exhibits in the North Bay: Petaluma, Sonoma, and Santa Rosa, the cities hit hardest by the fires. 

"Beauty happened. In addition to everything else, all the loss and tragedy, beauty happened," painter-sculptor Adam Shaw told KTVU at the Museum of Sonoma County. 

Shaw contributed to the exhibit entitled "From the Fire: A Community Reflects and Rebuilds." 

"It looks like some lumbering beast that died of exhaustion," said Shaw, speaking to his neighbor’s classic, but melted and charred, Ford truck. “But it really has presence, it has a history that goes beyond seeing it as a rusted object." 

The truck is essentially the way the fire left it, except for a Buddha statue in the truck bed, and dried roses on the windshield. 

"This truck is like a dead rose, it's still beautiful but it's not what it once was," said Shaw.

The Museum of Sonoma County curates art exhibits and history exhibits, but in the case of the firestorm, there was no separating the two. Scorched street signs, a burned door from a police patrol car, even a garden hose, allude to the fear and chaos.

"We knew we had to record this and it became a very shared experience for everyone," said Cynthia Leung, of the Museum. “We also knew we had to have something for people come and think about and reflect upon."

Both the artifacts and art reflects the turbulence, but also the healing. 300 visitors came on the opening weekend. 

"When people are all here together, they can feel like their loss has been remembered and other people are thinking about it as well," said Leung. 

For ceramic artist Gregory Roberts, the need to create and help people were simultaneous. 

"How can I take the material falling from the sky and make something out of it?" he wondered last fall. 

Roberts spent the past year creating dozens of ceramic pots, which are also on display. Each is glazed with ashes, and because of the different content and chemical reactions, no two are alike. 

People brought ashes from the ruins of their homes. They will get their pots to keep when the exhibit ends.      

"Once they start to hold it, they don't want to let go of it, so that's a very sweet moment," said Roberts, of giving the pots to the survivors. 

He thinks of the pots as time capsules, or vessels for emotion. Every pot has a lid, for a reason. 

"There are times we want to put that memory aside, so you can put the lid on, and you don't have to be faced with it every day," he said.

A sign at the exhibit entrance warns that some of the pieces may be disturbing. “I've seen people who have lost their houses just stand here and cry," said Shaw. 

He created six large plywood panels; battered with fire, water, rust and sun. He added found objects and mirrors, each panel an assemblage that speaks to the idea of permanence, and looking at the fire with acceptance, even appreciation. 

"I wanted the fire to move through me, and pass through me, and I wanted to speak on the canvas," Shaw explained. "You can be completely broken by something and you can be transformed by it." 

The exhibit runs through January. The Museum of Sonoma County also has a "Fire Wall" on its website, with an array of fire-inspired art. Anyone can submit art to the online gallery as well.