The Atlas fire of Oct. 2017 came “very, very close” to Melissa Toole’s home in the Berryessa Highlands.
“We were evacuated for a little over a week,” Toole recalled.
Many residents had to leave everything they owned behind – including pets and animals.
While Toole’s home survived, she knew that others lost homes, animals or both.
The loss resonated with Toole, who is an illustrator.
“It got me thinking, the only way I could imagine helping,” was by using her artistic talents.
Toole decided to paint free portraits of the pets lost in the fires. She’d then donate those paintings to those pet owners.
Creating such artwork would help those who lost so much, “have a piece of home to bring into their new homes.”
“I am helping these beloved animals rise from the ashes,” and honor the memory of the pets who were not able to be rescued, she said.
After posting on various social media sites such as Nextdoor and Facebook, Toole received a number of portrait requests.
She created a GoFundMe campaign – called the Phoenix Project – to help raise funds to buy painting supplies. That includes many, many paintbrushes. “I paint them down to nubs,” she said.
Toole is also hoping to use the campaign as a platform for fundraising for an animal related or fire recovery cause.
Her time is being donated, she noted. “I am not making a profit.”
In November she began work on her first painting – a horse from Santa Rosa named Fuego.
Fuego’s owner is heartbroken, said Toole. “She won’t ever get over his loss but she’s really excited to hang the painting in her house.”
Since then the artist has painted about 15 different pets and animals. For reference, Toole uses digital photos of the animals that their owners were able to send to her.
Each painting is about 20 by 24 inches in size and takes about 14 hours to complete.
“I’m putting some time into them,” said Toole.
The animals have included horses, cats, dogs, kittens, geese and roosters. One canvas has seven pets on it – all farm animals, such as chickens and goats, Toole said.
Toole studied art at the California College of the Arts in Oakland. Later she joined the Air Force Reserves. She also worked as a tattoo artist at a studio called Damaged Lifestyle Tattoos in Vacaville.
Now she works full-time as a respiratory therapist at Kaiser in Oakland, commuting several days a week to work 12-hour shifts. Toole said she finds time to work on her art on her days off.
Toole said she plans to deliver the paintings to each owner around the end of October, one year from when the 2017 fires were finally contained.
One of her favorites is a portrait of a cat named Mr. Biggs. That painting “really touched me because of how it came out,” she said.
“It made him seem very much alive still.”