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Up from the Ashes: Reclaiming Memories + Artistic Practice

How were you impacted by the Atlas Peak California wildfire in October?

We just got wiped out. We had a rental house which got totally destroyed. Then I had my studio with all the equipment and collections of artwork that got completely destroyed and then Rachel [Clifford’s wife] had her little studio for her floral business. It all got destroyed.  So we got hit three times.  We had 15 minutes to get out so we left everything except what we were wearing and that was it. That’s our new life. We’re starting from there.

How did CERF+ help?

You guys were in there instantly. We received your assistance. The money is really helpful to start buying things to get living again but just the support was amazing because it was a very hard time. Even now it’s kind of hard to talk about.

What has your life been life since the fire?

For the first two or three months we were in a hotel room. Then we decided because so many people lost their homes and businesses that there was going to be like a real flurry for rebuilding and contractors. We wisely got going really fast to rebuild the house to have somewhere to live. My neighbor reached out to us and offered us a place to stay – a little cottage with a gym and exercise equipment. We rented that to keep our finances low. It’s tiny but comfortable. It’s only a few minutes from our house site so I can get there in 5 minutes. It’s frugal and practical.

What has been the impact of this disaster for you as an artist?

At the beginning, for the first month or two, I really couldn’t make anything. My brain just didn’t want to contemplate what had happened. A lot of people give advice. One of the best pieces of advice was to just take your time. I’m a bit of a workaholic and a planner so to do nothing was not part of my nature. Most people said don’t rush. I have to make the decision whether I want to remake a lot of the work that I lost or do I just want to start off with a clean canvas and then start working in a totally different way. I’m not sure yet. I kept a lot of things back from the burn site like burnt charcoal, wood, a lot of metal fragments and glass fragments survived so I kept a lot of those. I’ve been doing drawings with the burnt charcoal. All of a sudden, not really knowing what I was doing, it’s opening up different possibilities about hand tools and loss and memory. I am working and there’s things coming out of it. They’re not art works yet but the process is working and that is helpful.

Our studio wasn’t insured. Money was an issue but we realized we needed to do something really fast and getting some help from you and some other people we really needed to go to our bank and we were able to secure a construction loan; a mortgage. We were able to get that pretty quickly and started to build the foundation on a concrete slab for the house. The results made me more energized in more ways than one. For the first couple of months I just could not get out of bed. I really had to force myself and I’m someone who likes to get up really early in the morning.  So getting up at 4:30am now every morning is something I enjoy. I’m on the mend. The brain is kicking back in again but I don’t know what sort of works are going to come out of it in a year’s time. I’m just going to let it take its course.

What lessons did you learn as a result of what you’ve been through?

I had an office in our house which was kind of my business office where I had all of my sketchbooks and all the things to do with research. I had a second office at the studio which was at the bottom of the hill with a lot of my duplicates and photographs and sketchbooks which was a 10 minute drive away. I always had two copies of my journals. I always assumed that if something happened like an earthquake or something that one would survive but they both got burned. I learned that some things need to be in a much more secure place. In the new house I’m trying to find ways I can secure things from fire but it turns out there’s no real way to do it.  Hopefully this will never happen again but if it does, hopefully we can make it safer.

What does resilience mean to you?

I have a funny story. At the beginning when I didn’t want to get out of bed I went to a yoga class that I always go to. I was still pretty shaky but I went. The teacher came over to offer his condolences. I was expecting him to offer me some real words of wisdom from higher places about how to get on and how to cope and he simply said, “I do not like wimps. Get on with it.” It made me laugh and I realized you look at what you’re grateful for and not what you’ve lost. A lot of people lost their lives and we didn’t so it was a matter of saying, this is going to be difficult. It was one hour at a time and then one day at a time and then one week at a time. There’s nowhere to go but forward.