Tiny birdhouses with messages of gratitude and resilience are on display in Sonoma Valley, in observance of the first anniversary of the North Bay firestorms.
ArtEscape, a nonprofit arts education center and gallery in Boyes Hot Springs, invited the local community to share memories and paint wooden birdhouses as part of its “Sweet Home Sonoma” project recognizing the impacts of the fires.
“Even though everyone went through this disaster, everyone’s experience was different,” said project coordinator Jill Valavanis, a teaching artist and grants writer with ArtEscape. “There’s no way to make real sense of it because it was a natural disaster.”
Organizers hoped community members would express their emotions, reflect on their experiences and reach out to others affected by the fires, whether they lost loved ones or homes or are moving forward from the trauma and destruction.
“People still aren’t through it,” said Sheila Harmon, who was under mandatory evacuation orders to leave her Agua Caliente home off Highway 12 in northern Sonoma Valley last October. “It was horrible. Everyone would say that.”
Harmon painted a miniature birdhouse while sitting under the shade of an oak tree in the Glen Ellen Village parking lot during a recent “Sweet Home Sonoma” creativity session.
She stayed at her daughter’s home in Sonoma for a week during the fires, driving several times to Agua Caliente to check on her house in her “deserted” neighborhood. Her home survived, but she knows people who lost everything.
Harmon reflected on the fire’s devastation as she painted her birdhouse, one of about 200 on display outside ArtEscape.
The project will culminate with a reception for a new, unjuried exhibit of artwork created in response to the fires. Those attending the “Rise From the Ashes” opening can choose a birdhouse to take home, with a message tucked inside.
Like notes discovered in bottles tossed in the ocean, the messages are intended for strangers. Each is attached with a string and was written (or dictated) as a way to build connections and share experiences from the past year.
“The intent is to help people heal through something creative and bring the community together again in support of each other,” Valavanis said. “It’s a good emotional connection.”
The effort is one of eight arts projects in Sonoma County funded by Creative Sonoma specifically in response to last year’s fires. ArtEscape is among the nonprofits that received grants totaling $36,000 to sponsor programs and activities ranging from art-making projects to exhibitions of rescued fire artifacts to newly commissioned music.
A division of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, Creative Sonoma awarded grants exceeding $150,000 in a three-part response to the fires. Funding was made available through the county and donors to the Creative Sonoma Recovery Fund.
Glen Ellen resident Fran Meininger volunteered with ArtEscape after hearing about the “Sweet Home Sonoma” project. The effort struck a chord with Meininger, who lives near the fire-damaged 202-acre Sonoma Valley Regional Park.
“My house was safe, but my home burned,” she said, referring to the valley as a whole. “We were all in this together. It wasn’t about your individual home, it was about the community.”
The “Sweet Home Sonoma” project, Meininger said, is a way of bringing residents together through shared experiences, concern for one another and recognition of efforts grand and small that started as the fires burned.
“Sweet Home Sonoma” birdhouses will be on display through Oct. 10 outside ArtEscape, 17474 Highway 12, Sonoma. They will be exchanged during the “Rise From the Ashes” art exhibit opening and free reception 5-7 p.m. Oct. 13 at ArtEscape.