Birdhouses represent major post-fire emotions of Sonoma Valley residents

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On Display

“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.

For more information, call 707-938-5551 or visit or

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.

On Display

“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.

For more information, call 707-938-5551 or visit or

Emma Diaz, who works at Wine Country Chocolates on the Sonoma Plaza and volunteers with ArtEscape, said art allows for contemplation and healing. By taking the time to paint a tiny birdhouse and write a message for an unknown recipient, Diaz could reflect on her experiences and emotions.

“I like how I could express it out, instead of having it hidden in my feelings,” she said. Diaz lives in El Verano, just west of Sonoma, and left town with her family during the fires, because of the smoke and poor air quality. Her sister has two young children and was pregnant at the time.

“It was horrible,” Diaz said. “And it just got worse.” Her birdhouse recalls the fires, with yellow flames rising from an orange background. “It’s fall colors,” she said, “because it happened in the fall.”

Diaz said numerous visitors to the downtown chocolate shop expressed concern for the community, asking how people were affected and about the long-term impacts.

Eleven-year-old Sofia Goldberg vividly remembers the night she and her family spotted an ominous mass of flames moving across the horizon from their Glen Ellen home.

“They were very glowy from a distance, so we evacuated,” the fifth-grader said. She tried not to worry about her school in Kenwood where fires were growing, or the safety of her home during the time she spent away from the mandatory evacuation zone.

Sofia carefully painted a round birdhouse during the free art session, then took time to write a message about her experiences.

Valavanis said some “Sweet Home Sonoma” participants were too young to write their own messages, so she took dictation for their scrolls. “They were little, bitty kids,” she said. “They know the word ‘evacuate’ now.”

Valavanis, who lives in El Verano, is grateful for the heroic efforts of firefighters and other first responders. She helped lead a thank-you card project at ArtEscape following the fires, with handcrafted notes sent out across the country and beyond.

The campaign was personal. She headed to the South Bay during the fires to help care for her evacuated elderly parents, who live in east Sonoma where flames threatened their rural neighborhood.

“We didn’t know for a long time if their house was there,” she said. Trees, fences and water tanks and pumps on their property “were just toast,” but firefighters “saved the house by 5 feet.”

Her feelings of gratitude are echoed throughout Sonoma Valley, with many “Sweet Home Sonoma” participants mentioning their appreciation and “love of the valley.” The birdhouses represent homes lost and saved, the rebuilding process and the spirit of the community coming together.

“We wanted it to be a healing process,” Valavanis said. “It’s a release from somewhere deep within.”

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