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‘Eerie orange’ day spurs Sonoma artist to curate online art gallery

An online art gallery created and curated by a Sonoma woman explores the region’s fire and smoke, and the pandemic, through the eyes of various artists, their work, thoughts and emotions.

Julia Westerbeke, whose great grandparents bought the property where her grandmother started the Westerbeke Ranch on Grove Street, had been thinking about such a gallery for years, something to commemorate fires and climate change and such. And then that eerie orange Wednesday, Sept. 9, happened.

“It was such a strange time of the uncanny,” she said. It felt like “we are living on Mars,” she said, and needed to talk about it. The website The Red Wood launched in late October.

Westerbeke, who splits her time between Sonoma and Mill Valley, is an artist herself and reached out to artists she knows, some local and some who have first-hand experience with loss due to fire.

“It’s an interesting path that artists are taking,” Westerbeke said.

The gallery includes images of art made with mixed media, acrylic paintings, sculptures, photographs, woodwork, sculptures, video, fiber, fabric, paper and more from some 40 artists.

“What I love about the show is because it is virtual I can add more artists and it can grow,” Westerbeke said.

Norma I. Quintana, for example, lost her home and studio during the 2017 Atlas Peak Fire. Her series “Forage From Fire” evolved from that loss and discovering personal belongings destroyed in the fire.

“The destruction was staggering, and it was difficult to register the totality of our loss. But as I looked closer, I noticed a certain strange and unexpected beauty in the ashes,” Quintana wrote in her testimonial for the gallery. “I began to recognize objects – a pin, a wristwatch, a statuette of a clown, camera bodies and kitchen tools. As I held the objects in my hand, I had a feeling of rediscovering memories of my past.”

She realized she needed to document the items and the moment. With her iPhone she photographed the ruined pieces she placed on a black rubber glove, the kind she had been using to dig through debris.

Another Napa artist, Kristina Nobleman, created visual landscapes using textile fragments and torn and stained paper in her series called “Kindling.”

When her mother lost her home in the Glass Fire she reflected on the ephemeral nature of things, including the landscape. “Kindling” is a response to that.

Westerbeke said an artist friend in Seattle, Serrah Russell, developed her work “almost as a memorial” to the smoke that drifted north there from California’s wildfires over the summer. The smoke was so bad Russell and her young son didn’t go outside for more than a week, Westerbeke said.

Russell’s collage work came from that experience. She hand-cut photographs of cast bronze sculptures, reconfiguring the images, and changing backgrounds.

Other artists, such as Eve Werner and Barry Beach, incorporated ash into their work. Werner’s materials came from within the burn scar where her childhood home was lost to the 2018 Camp Fire.

Beach’s ash fluttered from the sky while sheltering in place and informed the works he created, which he said in his work’s description feels like it was a way to “protect and encapsulate during this crazy time.”

The art gallery The Red Wood can be found at theredwood.show, where those interested in exhibiting their work can find submission guidelines.

Contact Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

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