Reflections on the Thomas Fire are at the heart of several new exhibits that have recently gone up in Ventura County. Many were just opening when the Woolsey, Hill and Camp Fires struck. What had been designed to document one devastating wildfire suddenly took on even greater gravitas as California faced more destruction, including its deadliest wildfire ever. The heart was breaking again. And yet, works of art — including paintings, photography, ceramics, quilts and the written word — speak volumes, not only of destruction wrought by fire but also of the resilience, community, hope and even beauty that spring up in its wake.
From the Ashes: Thomas Fire Photography by Luther Gerlach, on exhibit through Dec. 30, explores a burn area that was transformed into a charred “abstract landscape” (www.santapaulaartmuseum.org). With a wooden view camera, Gerlach created photographs that show the “timeless cycles of destruction and creation.” The photographer explains that he “collected ash and sulfur-laden water from hot springs at the origin point, Thomas Aquinas College. It is almost as if these chemical catalysts carry a memory of the fire, acting on the print to produce ghostly effects, such as swirling, apocalyptic skies and suggestions of the trees that once stood.”
In the next gallery, the 11th Annual Art About Agriculture Show, running through Feb. 24, stands in stark contrast to Gerlach’s photographs. The exhibit features paintings, photographs and sculptures that burst with color and life. Curated by photographer John Nichols and painter Gail Pidduck, the works, which are all for sale, are reminders that rebirth is possible. “There’s always hope,” says Nichols.
At the nearby Agriculture Museum in Santa Paula, Wrapped With Care, an exhibit of quilts from the Thomas Fire Quilt Relief Project, led by the Ventura Modern Quilt Guild, opens on Dec. 8. In all, more than 1,200 quilts were donated to people affected by the Thomas Fire and the Montecito mudslides. “In a time of such sorrow for our community, it’s important to continue to raise up the stories of those who jump in and help,” said Elena Brokaw, the Barbara Barnard Smith executive director of the museum. (venturamuseum.org/visit-agriculture-museum).
At the Kwan Fong Gallery at California Lutheran University through Jan. 10 is Pyrometric: Earth and Ash in the Anthropocene, featuring ceramics by Amiko Matsuo and Brad Monsma and two-dimensional works by Matsuo (blogs.callutheran.edu/kwanfong). Monsma, an English professor at CSU Channel Islands, and Matsuo, the head of 3D Fine Arts at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, explore the “destructive and transformative sides of fire.” Some pieces have bold swaths of red made with fire retardant, the same kind that is dropped from helicopters and planes to fight wildfires. One piece shows a black helicopter against a fiery backdrop, hovering over the words, “We walked the moonscape, gathering ash for glazes — we slaked and sieved the ash must have been and will be something.”
At the heart of the exhibit is hope. “The work can engage people where they are in their own experience,” explains Sam Thomas, a professor of religion at CLU. “There is a level of compassion in the work that is somehow comforting even while it points to some wicked problems.”
The themes of destruction and rebirth also resonate throughout two recently released books.
Ventura: Photo Reflections, by Latitudes Gallery owner and photographer Stephanie Hogue, celebrates Ventura’s beauty and resilience. Most of the photos were taken before the Thomas Fire, but there is “some depiction of the new life emerging from the scorched hills.” Hogue adds, “We’re focusing on the goodness. This book presents the enchantment of our city in its very best light.” (www.latitudesfineart.com)
From the Fire: Ojai Reflects on the Thomas Fire is a stunning book of photography, poetry and interviews. The project was lovingly stewarded by Elizabeth Rose and Deva Temple, who met when they reached out to other Thomas Fire survivors on Facebook. Rose had started a group called Writing From the Fire as a way to heal in the fire’s aftermath. Meanwhile, Temple had felt “compelled to create a photography book to capture the deep experiences shared by her community.” The women joined forces and put out the call for submissions. They received about 900 photographs and dozens of written works, from which more than a hundred were chosen for the book. The finished product — at turns heartbreaking and uplifting, deeply personal yet universal — is available at several stores in Ojai and online at www.fromthefirebook.com. All photographs and written works that were submitted are featured on the web site. The book is also available for purchase at the Ojai Valley Museum, where 40 photographs from the book are on display as part of the exhibit, Trial By Fire. (www.ojaivalleymuseum.org)
From the Fire: Ojai Reflects on the Thomas Fire launched just as other wildfires were flaring up, causing Rose and Temple to empathize deeply with the communities affected. “I am thinking about the fires to the north and south of us. And I am thinking about Paradise, California,” Rose recently wrote. “And this just breaks my heart . . . And I do not for an instant take for granted how lucky we were a year ago.”
As Ventura County comes together once again to regroup and face the reality of a perpetual fire season, art and the written word have the power to help us heal in our own way, in our own time. And it might help to remember something Paul Bergmann of the Ojai Community Church wrote in From the Fire: Ojai Reflects on the Thomas Fire: “So, when I saw the green coming back out of the ashes, that cycle of life-death-rebirth, life-death-rebirth that plays out in seasons, it was playing out right here. It is a metaphor for life. Life wins. … It comes back. … Wherever you are in your life, something green is going to come and wrap you up and grow in love.”