Trial by Fire
Artist and writer find beauty in the wake of destruction
By Jessica Laskey
There’s a table in Stephanie Taylor’s art studio—a converted garage in the back of her family home on T Street—that holds a line of pretty, rusted objects. Two milk jugs, wire sculptures, the head of a hammer and eyeglass cases look antique.
But these items are not antique. These objects are all that remain of writer and poet Christy Heron-Clark’s parents’ two-lot family compound in Paradise that burned to the ground during the Camp Fire—the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history that raged through Butte County for 17 days last November
“Out of hundreds of families I know in the area, only one house was left standing and it’s uninhabitable,” says Heron-Clark, whose parents safely evacuated the morning of the fire. “The fire burned really quickly and really hot. There was not a single usable item left.”
You might wonder what these objects—whose rust, Heron-Clark explains, accrued instantaneously due to the interaction of moisture and extreme heat—are doing in Taylor’s studio. That’s where the story gets even more interesting.
Taylor is an accomplished visual artist and writer who’s been creating site-specific installations and paintings for more than 40 years. She’s a freelance contributor to The Sacramento Bee and co-author (with Rita Schmidt Sudman) of “Water: More or Less,” an anthology of art, essays and policy about water in California.
She’d been germinating an idea for months about an art exhibition exploring everyday items—what she calls “simple objects”—when she heard Heron-Clark read a piece about her reaction to the Camp Fire in a writing workshop. Taylor approached her about working together and they’ve been collaborating ever since on “Simple Objects: An Excavation, A Collaboration,” which opens at Archival Gallery on June 4.
“It’s not your average art show,” says Taylor, who also hails from Butte County (she grew up in Chico). “It’s more like a museum installation where we’re asking people to slow down and look at these objects in a way they never have before. It’s about asking, ‘What does an object mean to you?’ What is it now and how does that affect the future?”
Taylor and Heron-Clark—who does archeological digs as a hobby—visited the latter’s family property twice to hunt for objects before the dirt was scraped clean to prepare for rebuilding. (Though Heron-Clark’s parents have relocated to Roseville, they’ll retain the lots for the foreseeable future.) Their finds ranged from milk jugs to eyeglasses to pieces of Heron-Clark’s grandfather’s antique rifle collection. Once safely transported back to Taylor’s studio, the artist did what she does best: created with them.
“I come to these items more objectively than Christy, so I hold each one and feel it and see what it says to me and then view it through other tools of perception, like photography,” Taylor explains. For example, she photographed shattered glass and molten hubcaps found scattered around the property, converted those photos to digital files and then drew on the files. The results are stunning, wall-sized abstracts printed on vellum that will hang in the gallery windows.
Taylor also used charcoal that she chipped off charred wooden house beams to draw a mural of tangled branches depicting a location onsite—an image that’s both foreboding and beautiful in the artist’s capable hands.
Heron-Clark will also contribute written pieces—such as ruminations on her rural childhood—that will be part of the installation, as well as the accompanying catalog.
“This process has shown me that the things you think you know, you don’t,” Heron-Clark says. “I never thought the fire would bring a new way of seeing, but this experience has been a catalyst—a new life has been given to these objects, and to me. If it weren’t for the fire, I wouldn’t have this existence.”
“Simple Objects” will be on display at Archival Gallery at 3223 Folsom Blvd. through June 29.