YOUNTVILLE — Four months after the wildfires, the skies were blue once more, the air again clean and crisp outside the Napa Valley Museum. But the memory of those days of flame and smoke and destruction suffused every piece on display inside a downstairs gallery.
It was Monday morning, and three women carefully studied an array of paintings, sculptures and photographs, all the work of students from five high schools in Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties. Their common thread was one of memories still as searing as the flames that erupted Oct. 8 – images of dust masks, evacuation tents, dogs scrambling from burning homes.
The “First Response” exhibit had opened in late January, and heading into its final weekend, the women were deciding which three teens would receive top honors at a reception Saturday afternoon in the Yountville museum.
The show had long been planned as the museum’s second annual showcase of local teens’ creative talents. But the trio of fires that had killed 44 people and destroyed thousands of homes was too enormous to ignore, and by mid-November organizers decided to make it the theme of this year’s exhibition, according to Ariel Loraine, the museum’s program manager.
Amid the thousands of pictures, and tens of thousands of words, published about the destruction and recovery in the North Bay, “First Response” may stand out in the way it gives voice to the area’s youngest, said one of the event’s three judges.
“It’s educational to look at the fire from the perspective of these kids,” said Jessel Miller, founder of Napa’s Jessel Gallery. “They’re dealing with their pain, and if this is how they express it, I’m glad they have an outlet for it.”
Miller joined Kimberly Cook of the Yountville Arts Commission and Ronda Schaer, the museum president, in scoring each artwork on a five-point scale for its artistic intent, originality, use of media and alignment to its chosen theme. Prizes for the best in show, first place and second place will be announced at a celebration at 2 p.m. Saturday.
At times, the line separating artistic abstraction from painful reality appeared razor-thin, even to the judges. Along one wall of the gallery was the pottery-red form of a person lying motionless and on one side, clothing draped over it – “Apparition,” a sculpture by Ryan Torano of Healdsburg High School.
“Reminds me of Pompeii, in a way,” Miller said quietly over the piece, referring to castings from the voids left behind by those killed and smothered by volcanic ash in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. “That’s the first thing that came to me when I saw it – pretty heavy-duty.”
Schaer nodded: “I’m sorry that at that age, they had to experience that.”
Another entry evoked not the fires themselves, but the aftermath for some of those forced to flee them. Justin-Siena student Lauren Yung’s “Back Home” depicted canines driven out of their human companion’s house by the flames, while Grace Bouchet’s “Peace and Tragedy” captured a survivor’s persistence with a V-for-victory sign held over a mask-sheathed face.
Schaer, meanwhile, turned her gaze toward “Reach for Home,” an installation by Grace Vanden Huevel of Healdsburg consisting of three canvas tents, the sort of temporary shelter that protected some evacuees last fall.
“I find myself in those tents and I feel the loss,” she said – “but also the hope and the safety, (compared to) the day before when I might have feared I lost everything.”
“Even if (the artists) didn’t suffer a loss,” said Cook, “they were connected to someone who did.”