The Almeda fire forged and inspired art
In the face of drizzling rain and a chilling breeze, artists gathered Saturday morning at the Malmgren Garage in Talent for a show called “Art of the Fire.”
The sound of hammers punctuated the air as artists worked to get their pieces hung and wrapped safely inside donated plastic wrappers before the predicted heavy rain of the afternoon.
The historic building lost its roof to the Almeda fire, but with plastic protection in place for the art, the show didn’t have to wait for sunshine.
The “Art of the Fire” show couldn’t afford to wait. Soon the building will be restored, and in the process erase the kaleidoscope of color the flames left along its concrete walls. The marks speak of its status as a fire survivor and were the inspiration for the art show itself.
Standing on an easel outside the front of the building, retired hydrologist Robert Coffan, chair of the butterfly nonprofit Western Monarch Advocates, stood beside a piece of metal sitting on an easel.
Visitors walking in stopped at the object, resembling a thin puddle of silver that could easily pass for a sculpture. When they asked him if this was his art, Coffan demurred.
“No, it’s not mine, that’s nature’s art,” Coffan said.
Coffan found the object working on a volunteer clean-up after the fire. In the bed of Coleman Creek, near where a neighborhood of mobile homes had been, Coffan was hiking through debris with other volunteers when they found the object.
“It was in the bottom of the creek bed, they were pulling on it, trying to get it out, and it turns out to be this molten aluminum.”
The thing was thrown in the dumpster with the rest of the gathered debris. Coffan went home, but his mind was still on the strange artifact.
“So, Sunday morning I wake up, and I think, ‘Do I go back down there, and into that dumpster, where people will see me digging in there?’”
Coffan said he found the artifact at the bottom of the dumpster.
Coffan saved the artifact, waiting for a chance to show it. The “Art of the Fire” show gave him the opportunity. He hoped to gauge whether other people feel the same connection to the object. If they do, he has plans.
“Whatever I do, this needs to go out in a park or a place where that message stays for a while,” Coffan said, pointing to a sign above the artifact that said, “we must never forget.”
On the wall inside the building, photographer and health care worker Terry Croft showed her photographs.
“I just point and shoot,” Croft said.
Croft described herself as a hobbyist, who — outside the county fair — has never shown her work before. She was living in Ashland at the time of the fire. She was unaffected, but her sister’s home burned.
“My sister, she has three dogs, she saw the smoke and just got her dogs and got out.”
“Here we are two years later, it still brings tears to my eyes,” Croft said as she looked at the art around her.
For Colleen Thompson, photographer and registered nurse, the Almeda fire was her first day of a new job. She left halfway through her first day to evacuate her home. Like Croft, Thompson describes her photography as a way to process her grief.
“We lived in Phoenix on the other side of the freeway. One of the pictures on there,” Thompson said, pointing at her photo, “is of the rearview mirror, looking at the fire behind us as we were evacuating.”
The owners of the pet cemetery allowed Thomson and her husband to sit in their car at the cemetery as they watched the fire.
Thompson took pictures the entire time. She said it was the only way to distance herself from the moment as she waited to see whether their home would burn.
“I could see the fire behind the hills, but because of the way the hills were I couldn’t see if it was our house.”
Late that night, Thompson and her husband were allowed by police to drive back. It was dark, the power was out. But their house was still standing. Several of their neighbors’ homes had burned.
“It’s hard for the people who didn’t get burned out, even though we’re affected, we’ve got that survivor’s guilt.”
Thompson had over 100 photos, showing the fire, the aftermath, and buildings being rebuilt.
“Fire is beautiful,” Thompson said. “All forces of nature, I love all forces of nature. It’s the devastation that fire causes that’s not [beautiful].”
Monique Monet brought her ceramics to the show, those that survived the fire. Monet and her husband lost their home, studio and business in Phoenix.
“The day of the fire, we stayed the whole time, hosing down the building,” Monet said.
The couple avoided the police for hours as officers attempted to clear out the area. Monet said her neighborhood felt like a ghost town.
Then nearby propane tanks began to explode, sounds Monet described as being like gunshots and making her feel like she was in a war zone.
At one point, something in the distance exploded so violently it shook the ground beneath them. Monet said a black cloud came after and covered the sun, bringing with it a darkness like the middle of the night. Monet insisted it was time to go, and the pair evacuated to Medford.
The next day Monet’s husband rode his bike back to their house. The six-block trip took two hours, as police attempted to control the area. When he got there, the house was gone.
“Just chimneys and ashes,” Monet said.
Monet pointed out her ceramic sculptures and called them the survivors.
A head from a terra cotta warrior-inspired statue wore an appropriately demonic shocked expression. From what was a full-size statue, the head alone remains. One eye is covered with a streak of black. Another round sculpture had a spot of blue glaze on top. The fire turned the glaze red.
At the time of the fire, Monet was working on a statue of King David, intended to be nine feet tall. The sculpture was halfway finished and not yet fired when the fire burned the house down, collapsing the roof and destroying it.
Monet and her husband are housed again but she hasn’t replaced her kiln. The loss has not prevented her from making art, only changed her focus from ceramics to acrylic paint.
The rain did not prevent people from streaming in and out of the building throughout the day. Visitors walked through in raincoats and umbrellas.
“It was an amazing turnout of community support for art and the rebuilding of the garage. I personally feel grateful and inspired by all the people who participated in the event,” said Bonnie Morgan, owner of the Malmgren Garage.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.