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Wine Country artists find new life, inspiration in the wreckage of studios

SAN FRANCISCO -- Just about everything in the airy Sonoma art studio where Helena Donzelli and her two pals work is ruined. And they like it that way.

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Kevin Fagan
, San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO -- Just about everything in the airy Sonoma art studio where Helena Donzelli and her two pals work is ruined. And they like it that way.

They craft artistic works from the ashy wreckage left behind after the Wine Country fires rampaged through last fall.

They find it healing to transform the debris of tragedy into something beautiful. And they're hoping that what they generate will help other survivors heal too.

Everywhere you look in the boxy, well-organized space, hundreds of finished or in-process sculptures, paintings and multimedia pieces bear witness to the awesome power of flame -- and the power to reshape what it leaves behind.

Some pieces were simply plucked from the detritus and left unchanged. On one table sits a chunk of melted glass with forks embedded in it. Nearby is part of a car's water pump fused with metal blobs that used to be wheel rims.

Other pieces are purposefully assembled -- charred spatulas tacked onto copper plates, stones glued into a heart shape.

Hanging along one wall are rows of what at first look like American flags, but on closer view reveal themselves to be blackened tools, cinders, paint cans and other objects glued onto wood in flag-like patterns. On another wall are peaceful landscape paintings made of unusually chunky acrylic -- incinerated canvas ash and fragments are mixed into it.

Everything but the artists' tools, canvasses and some of the paint is melted, scorched or blasted to pieces. Most people would see the debris as trash, but sculptor Donzelli, multimedia artist Peter Alan and painter Karen Lynn Ingalls saw artistic potential.

``Just look at this,'' Donzelli said, holding up the glass chunk, which probably was once a bowl, with forks it in. ``Fire tried to destroy these things, but here they still are, only in a different form.'' She waved a hand to indicate her other works arrayed on shelves and tables.

``It's like that with all these objects,'' she said. ``The fire made its own art. I just placed it.''

Before the October firestorms, which destroyed more than 8,000 structures and killed 41 people, Donzelli, 54, and Alan, 49, were living and working in separate studios in Glen Ellen, and Ingalls, 61, had a studio just outside Calistoga. Their eyes mist over when they describe them -- homey places that once were barns or cottages, set in the bucolic, woodsy North Bay settings that have been drawing artists for decades.

At first, when they drove back to view the wreckage of those studios, they felt only grief -- then they got creative.

``After looking closely at all the stuff -- scorched wrenches from my workshop, twisted up spatulas from my kitchen, all kinds of things -- I got inspired and I posted on a firestorm survivors site on Facebook that I was going to turn it into art,'' Donzelli said. ``I immediately got a bunch of people who messaged me back, wanting me to make art like that for them, and they started bringing fire debris in to me.''

As soon as she rented the 1,200-square-foot studio in a metal-walled warehouse on the edge of Sonoma in January, she nailed up a metal sculpture that has been her personal logo for years. It's a heart sprouting two angel wings. Flames licked all the white paint off and left the bare metal pockmarked and caked with soot, but it was intact.

It's now hanging over the door, above a sign bearing the name she gave the studio: ``Resurrected.''

Ingalls had to go back to remnants of her former studio a couple of times before she saw any possibilities.

``My studio had a metal roof that just collapsed into the debris and folded over itself, and the first time I saw it I was crying too hard to see anything other than the sadness,'' Ingalls said. ``But then when I went back again, I saw it was weirdly beautiful. There was an elegance in those roof pieces, and when I looked closer I found the ashes and fragments of my paintings. I saw that I could do something with what was left over from something so terrible.''

Ingalls, who is longtime landscape painter in the North Bay, shot a video of her wrecked studio to show the beauty she saw in its curves and colors. It's gotten more than 7,000 views on her website. Then she scooped up the ashes and tattered bits of her paintings, took them to her home in Calistoga and stirred them into acrylics.

``I wanted what I made with the ashes of my burned paintings to speak of new beginnings, of hope,'' she said. Pointing to one of her latest, a green field with a golden road leading to a silhouetted tree-scape, she beamed. ``I'm trying to show that we can turn our grief, our losses, the ashes of our past, into beauty. I call these paintings 'landscapes of the heart.'''

Alan wound up in a Federal Emergency Management Agency RV at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds after the Nuns blaze gobbled everything he owned, but he saw the rubble of his studio as a multifaceted supply pile.

``The ash was black, white, gray, earth tones, and that presented itself as a palette to me,'' he said. ``The burned objects -- my refrigerator, the pans in my kitchen, pieces of my vacuum cleaner -- I saw as just beautiful forms. The wildfire left behind a special quality of material, not just the colors, but the textures, the shapes.''

He started storing the debris at his mother's garage in Santa Rosa, but he had nowhere big enough to use as a studio. Then in January, he met Ingalls at an artists gathering.

Ingalls knew Donzelli, who was open to sharing her new space. Ingalls and Alan moved their materials and tools into the studio in May. They've been busy ever since.

Alan is the one doing the flag renderings, echoing a popular project he did after 9/11 in homage to artist Jasper Johns.

``I'm calling my series 'An Assault on Humanity, Hitting Home,''' he said. ``Creating these pieces is giving me a deeper understanding, a deeper experience of being alive.''

The three have rounded up some art grants, sold works and shown at galleries as word of their new work spreads. Now they're aiming for a major show at the Petaluma Arts Center in September with other artists affected by the fires. They're also in talks to move into a giant barn in Petaluma that's being converted into a warren of art studio-shops and performance spaces.

``What those three are doing is about something that really hits home for a lot of people,'' said Pauline Block, marketer with Cornerstone, the company planning the barn conversion. ``There is nowhere right now where anyone can go to see that kind of fire art. I think it could be really powerful to have them there.''

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