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'From This Moment On ...': Wildfire and the art of Napa Valley's Nancy Willis

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Artist Nancy Willis opened a new show at Napa Valley College's Visual Arts Center on Sept. 14. "From This Moment On ...: Painting as Response to Wildfire" runs through Oct. 15. 

Willis paints moments of everyday life from domestic and exterior scenes. Her own garden has been the backdrop of many eventful dinner parties, lit by candles and strings of lights hanging from the redwoods. Moments from these events became motifs and recurring themes in her paintings.

Willis’ connection to her surroundings became much more acute with the wildfires of 2020. She was evacuated three times that fall and during the 2020 Glass Fire lived in a Napa hotel for 30 days. Her front yard in Deer Park hosted fire engines and first responders working tirelessly to save the forested neighborhood, and her house was spared. Willis turned to painting with a sense of urgency, going back into some completed paintings and modifying them with the smoke and orange glow that she saw the night she left.

When she returned, she found the landscape that she shared with wildlife was charred and devoid of color and life. With support from Arts Council Napa Valley community fund grants, she began a series of paintings tracking the effects of the fire on the redwood grove and forest near her home. She also collected artifacts and detritus from the fires, hearing stories of loss from neighboring families. With some of the materials she created a sculptural chandelier as a symbol of hope, and installed it in Lyman Park in St. Helena for the one-year anniversary of the fire.

In July 2021, Willis was awarded and attended a painting residency in France that offered respite and relief. Paintings of the verdant green French landscape are included in the exhibition as a sign of recovery and hope. The two-year project follows the artist’s experience, seeing glimpses of animals returning, new growth bursting up at the base of the trees, and depictions of a large redwood that stood witness to fire.

“Throughout my years of art making, I have pulled motifs from my personal life or created projects out of empathy for others," Willis says. "Until now, I have never used my process so overtly to work through my own trauma and grief. It weighs with an enormous gravity. I am confronting the security of my own existence as well as the security of the landscape we all share.”

The exhibition is curated by Amanda Badgett, art history professor at NVC, who writes: “Through her paintings and prints, Nancy gives lie to the idea of a static landscape: a grove of redwoods, all blackened and spindly in one canvas, emerges in another bristling with new growth. In a valley whose economic well-being is inextricably tied to agriculture, looking at Nancy’s images reminds us of the fragility of landscape in the face of global warming and the now ever-present threat of fire.”

Nancy Willis has lived and worked in St. Helena/Deer Park since 1989 and holds and MFA from SFAI. She is a painter, printmaker, curator and teacher. Willis conceived of and curated two large exhibitions at the Napa Valley Museum: “Discrepancy/living in war and peace,” which honored the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and “NOURISH,” which explored the rituals around dining. Her ongoing project “Conflict Zone” examines how violence against women is used as a strategy of war. Until the COVID-19 pandemic she taught at the Culinary Institute of America, and currently continues to teach at NVC and Nimbus Arts.

Napa Valley College's main campus is at 2277 Napa-Vallejo Highway, Napa. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The opening reception for "From This Moment On ..." is Wednesday, Sept. 14 from 4 to 6 p.m., and the closing event is Saturday, Oct. 15 from noon to 4 p.m.

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