"I couldn't keep up with myself. It was like my best problem I've ever had!" -Peter Alan
SERIES: Role of the Artist
What if somebody called you and said the thing you most dreaded to hear: "Everything's gone." Grief, disbelief, fear, uncertainty, and a mix of emotions you cannot identify are even worse than the fire itself. Yet, despite all that's happening, we can still make the world more beautiful! In this episode, we learn how art can be used in recovery as Jennifer speaks with Peter Alan, a Visual/conceptual mixed-media artist. Peter recalls his frightful flight as the mega-fires ravage everything around him and how he turned that nightmare into mesmerizing artworks. He also talks about how he was able to find beauty even in the darkness, build resiliency and grow, and use whatever skills you have to support each other. Listen in as Peter shares his secret to a faster recovery and facing adversities with optimism!
- 02:54: Art in Profession
- 08:04: Non-Narrative Art
- 11:48: The Sweet Spot of Humanity
- 19:45: A Horror Movie in the Real-World
- 26:01: The Depth of Grief
- 32:59: The Art in the Ruins
- 40:53: The Role of the Artist
- 49:23: Make the More Beautiful
17:23: "People are amazing when they're under duress and trauma. There is a vulnerability and a real essence that you get to see in people." -Peter Alan
18:33: "The jewel of humanity shows up so beautifully in a disaster because of our shared vulnerability." -Jennifer Thompson
30:08: "I'm an artist; I'm a creative. I see beauty in everything." -Peter Alan
31:52: "You can't keep an artist down." -Peter Alan
40:10: "We can help with resiliency. Our job is to make something good come out of [a disaster]." -Jennifer Thompson
41:57: "I couldn't keep up with myself. It was like my best problem I've ever had!" -Peter Alan
43:16: "It's the resilience that we have for ourselves. If we don't do that, there is no growth." -Peter Alan
44:57: "There is no guarantee in ignoring the trauma of a disaster. Not dealing with it is not an option." -Jennifer Thompson
50:57: "If it's not lost, it's adversity. And adversity is a catalyst." -Peter Alan
52:03: "We need to be supportive. People need to have importance, to be viewers of it." -Peter Alan
Visual/conceptual mixed-media artist Peter Alan was born and raised in Southern California. After earning a Certificate Degree in Graphic Design, UC Irvine, then completing his undergrad at Sonoma State University in Studio Fine Art, History and Psychology, he spent 6 months in Assisi and Rome, Italy. There, Alan received mentorship from a local native Italian painter that ignited his career choice to make art professionally. Alan's collective works on paper and panels range from Contemporary Realism, Abstraction and Responsive to Experimental, tinkering with any material art-makeable at reach. Since 1999, he has held a number of painting studios in California making art for galleries, non-gallery venues, and private collectors throughout mainly Los Angeles and Sonoma County.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to another episode of How To Disaster, a podcast to help you recover, rebuild and reimagine ecstatic Peter Alan with us Peter Alan. And Peter Alan is an artist, a friend, and an ally of rebuilds. If you look right over my shoulder, you will see one of his pieces of art that says fire exit. And it's always in my studio. I didn't just put it up there today, because my friend was coming over. I really love it. I think that's one of the reasons I want to have Peter with us today is he has this especially beautiful heart, and this ability to take something that was very painful and a huge personal and professional loss to him. Since the date of fires, in October 2018, he's been able to take pieces of his life and turn them into things of beauty. And so I want to welcome you, Peter, thank you so much for spending this day with us.
Peter Alan: Beautiful. Thank you for that introduction, Jennifer, you're so excellent. It's so mutual and reciprocal too. And I am grateful, static as well and very excited to be here. Thank you for having me. It's a big honor and privilege. And we're gonna knock this out of the park.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We are. I was very happy to do this. What are you messing with over there Peter, you guys are messing with stuff. You don't have to get this--
Peter Alan: I say, in case I need a reference for something, I'm gonna try to keep this not too academic or an art history lesson. But yeah, you set that up perfectly. I want to keep it real personal. I'm humble, but I'm also just, I'm so ridiculously happy right now. Mostly do with 2020, and we can get to that part two. So yeah, what do you get for me?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, first of all, I can't bang your hand on because the audio picks all that.
Peter Alan: Gotcha.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: The next thing is that, can you just give us a short bio of who you are, how you came to all these things? And let's just hear the story of Peter really briefly before we go into the rest of our interview.
Peter Alan: Sure. Yeah. My introduction to who I am. Yeah, my name is Peter Alan. I'm a mixed media visual conceptual artist. Been doing this professionally for about 20 years now. Originally from Southern California. Northern California, where I live now, currently in Santa Rosa. And a lot of my education was indirectly with art or my younger parts, although I always had a tutor and coach, and my mom always was involving me with art since I was a little kid. She's an artist herself, as well as her mother, my grandmother. And then I also have a cousin, Douglas TenNapel, he's a very accomplished animator. He's currently in Nashville, Tennessee area. So art has always been a part of me, and it's been a lifestyle of mine. I'm very introspective. I'm very into psychology. I also have a psychology and history backing to my fine art degree from Sonoma State where I did my undergrad.
After that, I went to Italy, and I did a spiritual retreat center there where I served the community, mostly to do with my spiritual path. Then I met a gal in Rome, and she invited me to be a guest to one of our artists friends who was a very accomplished painter. Did a lot of these kinds of fresco, the old style of Italian painting, and I got to be somewhat of a mentor from him. And that's when I realized that I wanted to do it professionally. So when I returned to California six months after that time, I established myself doing art. I had a studio. That time, I was in the [inaudible] area, which is near Sonoma State, and I was also working with the department inside the tool crib with John-Scott Forester. I was around students so I just love to be around art with other artists. And that's where I think I've really kind of grew up and I was really ready for, I was 29, almost 30 right around there. And then one of my best friends, Frank Lyon, an excellent painter down in Los Angeles. He's been my best friend in Sonoma State, and he invited me to come down to Los Angeles where we lived together as roommates. He was going to UCLA for the MFA program. And I was fortunate to be invited in and we did some printmaking there together. We shared each other's studios, we were always participating in art and seeing art in downtown Los Angeles. This would have been in the 2000, from 2002 to about 2010.
When I came back to Northern California because I had a part time job doing wine sales, and I hurt my back. Long story short, I stayed up here, and that's when I moved to Glen Ellyn. I had been doing my art, as well as doing the wine sales. I had gotten myself into massage therapy, that's my other job when there's not a pandemic. So in 2017, are we ready for that part, Jennifer?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I'm ready for that part. Not everybody who listens to this podcast, the intention of this podcast is to help every community that has just gone through a disaster or wants to build resiliency before they go into a disaster, they're looking for snapshots of how they rebuild. So the role of the artist I think is underappreciated, underutilized is something that should be could can and should be formalized into the process of resilience and recovery. So some people may not be aware of Peter's story or that we share the same time period of disaster. So talk to us about what kind of art recreating and what happened to you.
Peter Alan: Yes. I had a studio at my place in Glen Ellyn. I was on Dunbar a couple doors down from John Lasseter. He's the CEO for Pixar, Disney, Pixar studios, Never got to meet him. So yeah, I've worked in pretty abstract and representational painting, mixed media with the drawing, the printmaking, their sculptural pieces either on paper or in panels, smaller to mid size, very rarely a large scale. But yeah, mostly landscape and figurative and portraiture in its nature. But I tinker with things, big into the Rauschenberg found objects, find something on the ground like something that I can recycle and put forward into my work. And it's all about building surfaces, their psychological surfaces. So being very introspective and being very fascinated with all the ologies and isms that I'm interested in, I play a lot into my process. And at the time I was living in Glen Ellyn's a beautiful nature area, it's very quiet. The only time I ever heard anything was either like a deer outside or an acorn fallen on my roof. It's just a beautiful area of the Bay Area, Sonoma Valley. So yeah, I was doing a massage. I have my little studio doing a lot of abstract work, pretty non narrative type stuff. Not so much represents educational, but a lot of dislikes surface study and exploration.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Now, for someone who doesn't know it, non narrative stuff means we want to meet them so they're probably the artists that are looking at this, even curators that are looking at this, but also just your average person who may not be fluent in the language of what exactly what it is you're talking about. So what do you mean by non narrative?
Peter Alan: Well, with the abstraction, it's open to interpretation. I'm not really telling a story other than depicting my process and working with surfaces, additive and deductively. So as much as that went into my paintings, a lot of stripped off, or torn off, or cut back down to its essence. Much like we do in therapy, psychologically as we go back to our past, we kind of go back into those areas where we get kind of an origin something. And for my art, I always wanted to see how I reserved some of that past, but also letting a lot of it go very psychological. If that was my narrative, people won't necessarily get that. And mostly when people would see my pieces, they just like, oh, I really liked that course, texture and surface. How are you doing that? So it's engaging the viewer, not so much. It's something I'm saying as a concept, or something political, or anything like that. It's more of their engagement in something beautiful. So the aesthetics of the piece.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It was that your process prior to the fire and it served you post faster, or did it become even more so your process because of the fire--
Peter Alan: Most of them. Now, it's a lot more narrative going on, and we'll talk about that. So yeah, I'm ready to discuss the night.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, let's hear it. Go ahead.
Peter Alan: 17th, the bravest night of my life, crazy night. I think most people have heard testimony from so many people, 12,000 plus, basically anybody who is living in Sonoma County smelling fire is still effective. Are you familiar with the Discovery Show Callfire?You've heard about this?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I just heard about it. I'm totally excited to watch it.
Peter Alan: I'm very excited. I can't wait to see that. That's going to be beautiful, though. It was a very strange Sunday night. I'm from Southern California. I was born and raised with Santa Ana winds with dry, high velocity intense winds. And yet, I had no smelt or seen anything like that night. Up here in Northern California, it was so oddly drives probably super low single digit humidity. And with the 50 mile an hour winds where I was, if this had been going--
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You were on the valley floor?
Peter Alan: Yeah. Dunbar, the 12th Dunbar and closer to Arnold. I was exactly one mile away from Dunbar School, the elementary school there. I remember watching the Monday football game, I kind of had it on, I was really tired. I'd done a lot of work that day, and I was more put out about the wind being concerned co'z I lived in a lot of oak trees. And I was more concerned about a tree falling on me. So I put some earplugs in and I kept my phone on. And thank God I did because I'll get to how my neighbor saved me or woke me up. Otherwise I would have probably slept through it. About 9:30 or so when I went to sleep. And then I get a call from my neighbor, Steven. He said: "You might want to look outside the window. There's a very ominous orange glow. It's kind of cool." Nothing like, oh, my God, there's a fire that looks like maybe a couple a few 100 yards away from us, and it's coming in our direction, we should get the hell out here. No, he was more fascinated by it. We didn't realize the magnitude of it because we couldn't quite see all the trees, being so flat, being at the valley floor.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Also because, and this is really important. We never see Callfire, never even seen a fire like this before. I get news, 20 miles in five hours. So there was no reason at that time for you to think that you were in any imminent danger, because we'd never seen a-
Peter Alan: Never seen anything like this. I had a few fires growing up down in Orange County where I was born and raised. I did grow up until I moved here. But I had witnessed fires advancing like three seconds, like a football field every three seconds. I mean, that one that I remember when I was very little, I was probably about seven years old. That took out a hill and just like seconds. But anyway, I had no realization of the actuality of the fire other than I could see the orange glow. And it was Steven and I and one of our other neighbors, we were outside standing out there in the wind and the brief coming everywhere. I could see the orange glow. It looked like it was, yeah, just be on down kind of in the Trinity Dunbar and 12 area in there. And I could hear all the commotion, I could hear the fire department, could hear people yelling. And then I started hearing the big booms. Because a lot of people have these large propane tanks, right? So those were exploding, or cars. So what actually had me leave was the power went out. And that must have been about 2:15. And I had it that, okay, I can hear all the commotion down there. If they're gonna put it out, I mean, they're not gonna let the whole town. That one's a little hard for me to say. We can never process this stuff enough can we?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Can never process it enough. It's really, it's totally you can take your time. It's all good. We're all good.
Peter Alan: I've just done so much work on it. And it surprises me when there's any kind of another layer of grief that comes up, and I'm all for it. I mean, I've been doing this work since I was little. My mom put us in therapy when I was 10 years old from our family's divorce, so I'm used to like sharing and getting in touch with my feelings, especially as a male. It's all been good practice for me my whole life. There's a question about what surprised me, and we'll get to that part. So it was when the power went out and I thought, okay, I'm gonna grab my gym bag, so I want to go to yoga tomorrow, and grab my laptop. I had three laptops, I just grabbed my main one. Got in my car and I made it out. And I couldn't quite see the fire yet. It wasn't when I turned on to Arnold Drive with my intention to turn left to go towards Santa Rosa, because my mom lives in Montecito Heights, that was my plan. Take my gym bag, my laptop, spend the night with my cell phone. Of course, spend a night, mom's come back the next day to blow over. Back to business as usual. It was then where there's a police officer there and he was, nobody was prepared for this. He said: "You can't go that way, you have to go towards Sonoma." And I said: "Well, my mom was in Montecito Heights. Can I turn to go co'z I want to spend the night over at her house." He said: "Just do whatever you have to do." So I went through there, and boy, he should have helped me. He should have held his advice a little stronger because I barely made it through Kenwood. There were trees that had fallen down, they're on fire, telephone poles were on fire. To my right was a field of embers that are already burned. That's the area where it originated from. And then over to my left, all I saw were silhouettes of chimney stacks with the embers. And it wasn't one or two houses, but it was like a clearing. It was like a populated warzone that I was going back into history for like World War ll, and going through a war zone.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Often you see the little gas lines with flames on--
Peter Alan: All the gas lines.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Gas lines are very creepy after five.
Peter Alan: But I realized the timeline like shoot, this thing had been burning while I was sleeping. I mean, this been going on for a few hours, and it only took out that neighborhood. And that's when I had the insight, I could barely see, I did try to take a video and it was dangerous for me to do that. I think I ended up deleting it or something like that, but it was only for like 10 seconds because I was fearing for my life. I thought something was gonna fall on me or I was my car was gonna explode because I could feel heat. So that was survival mode. I've only felt imminent death like three times in my life. One from surfing and once was skiing, this was the third time. I really thought I was going to die. I was vigilant and just did my best to see as best I could and drive through it so I made it. The second I made it through, Jennifer, my mom calls me. Thinking, Oh, she must have heard about the fire that's going over here. No, she's calling me because she's being evacuated for a fire over there.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Most people don't notice we had 11 fires over four counties, and tribes and nuns that fired the two fires that we're referencing for your mom and for you were mega fires.
"People are amazing when they're under duress and trauma. There is a vulnerability and a real essence that you get to see in people." -Peter Alan
Peter Alan: So she's calling me and saying that she's being evacuated to Montecito Heights, and that she's taking the dog and the cat. She's gonna go over to Finley. And I said: "Oh, I already said that. I'm being evacuated too." And she's like: "Okay, well, why don't you meet me there." So I spent the night at Finley Center, awake with the dog and the cat. And there were some nice moments. People are amazing when they're under duress and trauma. There's a vulnerability and a real essence that you get to see at people often. What I experienced was a very positive thing, we have a wonderful community in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County. Yeah, we have a riff raff like anywhere. There were families there. There are people with other pets. And people were just so beautifully vulnerable, and transparent, and just in shock. We're all just there for the same thing that we had no preparation for.
"The jewel of humanity shows up so beautifully in a disaster because of our shared vulnerability." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Interestingly, Rebecca Solnit, one that I really like. And she will write on a variety of different issues. Like one book she has called Men Explain Things To Me. It's hilarious, but she wrote another book called A Paradise Built in Hell. It's very much about that phenomenon that when terrible things happen, we're always told or taught that people turn on each other. But then if you actually experience a disaster, you learn that in the midst of it, people turn towards each other. And that is that sweet spot of human vulnerability of humanity where like the jewel of humanity shows up so beautifully in a disaster, I think largely because of our shared vulnerability. So I love that you mentioned that.
Peter Alan: Thank you. Yeah. Beautiful. Thank you. Sounds like a good read.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It is.
Peter Alan: So that was that night.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So you spent the night in Finley Center alongside with your mother. I do think that it's always worth talking about the beauty of the humanity in the center of our experiences. But tell us about the next day, or took a couple of weeks for them to get back into Glen Ellen. How long before you knew that in fact, your home and your lifetime of work that was left behind, how long did that take for you to understand what had happened?
Peter Alan: Four days. Nobody was allowed in. The wildfires went on for nearly three weeks.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: For 23 days?
Peter Alan: 23 days, yeah.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: 23 days. So to keep up four days, and then were you able to, I can't imagine were you able to physically go back in or just understand that your house was gone, and somebody else had informed you about that. What was that moment like?
Peter Alan: Thank you. So yeah, my mom was inside, actually, my mom went in the car and she was sleeping in the car. She had the dog and cat in there with her. I was outside. I was so just strung up on adrenaline and I stood outside, and the terrible, terrible smoke with the large pieces of debris falling from Coffee Park. Didn't really realize that what was happening was just like a surreal bad horror movie. But it still didn't really settle in what was actually occurring, because I can't see it. But I just remember that night being awake all night. But yeah, my mom and I ended up going back to her house even though she was still under evacuation order. We felt like the fires pretty much passed the imminent danger for her. That story of the woman, she was in the paper twice who saved Montecito Heights from over [inaudible],.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Remarkable story, older women. I mean, it's not older like me, not like older like 51, but much older than me who saved Montecito Heights and a really remarkable story. I agree. I think it would have been saved the next day. And for those of you who are not familiar with this fire where Peter would be [inaudible] his mother was somewhere on the other side of town near Coffee Park where 1,500 homes were taken out that night. So we are talking about in total, over the course of one night, 6,000 structures being absolutely devastated, big planned urban developments were taken out, rural communities were taken out, the destruction was massive. So Finley Center was one of the places where people congregated on to evacuating, and a lot of people have stories about family centers where the shock and the offsets, and then having to understand all of a sudden that you have nothing, and you have to actually go shop from toothpastes, even vehicles, I ever had to replace a little bit of everything right away.
Peter Alan: Yes, yes. So thank you. The next day, I think I slept from like, what? 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning. When we got back to her place, I think I slept till maybe about 10:30 or 11:00. I'm not a late sleeper, but I still on the adrenaline. So yeah, I needed confirmation so I text my neighbor, Stephen and said: "What's the status?" And his reply was: "Everything is gone."
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You can take your time, Peter, it's totally fine.
Peter Alan: Yeah, it's just being back in that moment. It's not now, it's that being back in that moment that's bringing up all that grief and that surge of it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: How I admire the fact that you can just sit in it for a minute and let it have all the space it needs for a minute. I think it's important for people who do listen to this who think, well, I'm just going to manage, like self manage my way through this grief. And that's not exactly how this works. This isn't like anything else because we're three years and three months past the actual event, but until you go through it, until you not only confront the mortality of it, the imminent mortality of it, but also it's huge. It's interesting because people love to watch these movies, and I've never been like such a fan of disaster films. And Twister is pretty good. But other than that, I'm not really into it. I don't like Dystopian. I don't like anything Dystopian Mad Max, nothing like that. But it's sort of the closest you come, and you do find yourself in the middle of like a bad movie that you never asked to be in. It's so much deeper. So it's like a land of thousand euros and a million tears at the same time. It's very difficult. I admire the fact that you are willing to sit in it and have a moment. And I think we're fine with it here right now, just so you know.
Peter Alan: Well, thank you. Thank you. Actually, I have something to interject on that. I just had an insight, something that I've been exploring since then. I'm particularly fortunate. I'm built very differently than a lot of people when it comes to the PTS. I've recovered faster than most people maybe through my values. One of them being creativity, I've always been a person that I don't want to hold on to the things that make me unhappy. Freedom is one of my highest values, and the importance of my life, and my power, and my ability to be creative, and to be able to have joy, and to be able to be grateful. And if I'm holding on, and if I haven't addressed something, I know how to do that as I just demonstrated there, it's psychosomatic. The mind thinks, the body feels and neither do both. So I've been able to get pretty clever and somewhat masterful in managing myself in those areas and the world itself. And yet, it was just striking to me that to feel that grief as I felt six months, it took me about six months to get that grief out. And we can get to that.
So much started to transpire and unfold for me, Jennifer, in the next particularly year on so many levels, so many areas and aspects of my life, it was a Thursday, and I went back through my [inaudible] and kind of got around the police barriers and was able to get onto the 12. And just as I was able to get on the 12, they were doing bat burns behind Ledson and some of the wineries back in there, maybe it was St. Francis. Back in the lower hills there where they actually just burned again this last year. I was able to get to my property on that Thursday, and that I did take a video. I think I have it somewhere, but it's me going down my driveway.
"I'm an artist; I'm a creative. I see beauty in everything." -Peter Alan
And sure enough, complete leveling up just white ash, to some pipes, the copper pipe that I think doesn't burn until like 1,300 degrees and has the highest tolerance to heat. I wanted to get some grief out, I wanted to get some emotion because I was so vigilant so much in my head and I could feel nothing about it. I didn't like what I saw and I just sat with it. I spent a couple hours there. I sat with it. From the loss and the complete destruction, something happened. Something shifted. I'm an artist, I'm a creative, I see beauty and everything. The loss, the debris and the rebel, it presented itself as an art store of free art supplies. Then I got started getting these insights, oh, wait a minute. If everything is lost and I can't make art, could I make art out of that? I mean, I never really followed fireheart until getting these insights out of it. And I knew what I was going to be doing out of all this for the next three months until the bream removal service dug six feet into the property and took off everything might free art store away. So for about three months, I was making trips with bags and boxes, and with the mindset that the ash was going to be my new paint. Black ash, white ash, Gray's to really beautiful earth tones. And as I went to--
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Because it does help a lot. But just to be clear, we do not necessarily endorse this practice because the ash that comes out of a wildfire is highly toxic. And his house, yeah, is absolutely reduced to three inches, usually of oily ash. But people do go back and they do sifting, and there's 15 kits, and you have a mask, and there are protocols to do it. I just have to say that we are no way endorsing taking that ash with you. But we do know that Peter, we do trust that Peter employed the right protocols to keep his health.
"You can't keep an artist down." -Peter Alan
Peter Alan: I did. I wore gloves, and 100 masks, I wore goggles, close to all those. Probably not perfect, but you can't keep an artist down. And yes, I understand that we have to be responsible for the viewership and the audience. I'm just gonna go roll around in the ash now. No, highly toxic stuff. I mean, it's fiberglass, there's glass and smoke that we've been breathing. You know that 80% of the persons from 911 to Manhattan, 80% of them have respiratory conditions, from what I've read.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Not surprised. And I just posted a study on our social media yesterday that talked about the role of wildfire and all the pollution that we've taken in. And so we can do a totally other podcast, but it's so interesting to me that in our zeal to have cleaner air, we suppress these wildfires for about seven years. And in the meanwhile, we ended up with 70 years of pollution in three years. Just one of those things that has to be changed. And we have to go more to a Native American sense of it. So talk to me about, just the interest of time, I want to make sure that we get into what you started to create with what you found.
Peter Alan: Yes. Thank you. That was right where I was. So when the ash, I then started finding remnant objects. Found some of my old sculptures, I just bought some pumpkins, it was nearing Halloween and Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays. And the fires, one of them was burning, and it left this beautiful, biomorphic shape type sculpture. And the planks of wood, I had the insight that I'm gonna do the American flag, the American flag representing disaster, tragedy and patriotism. And I'm going to use that flag motif that Jasper Johns came up in the early 1950's as my composition as he did. Not so much about patriotism, but more of a composition and also how it ties into art history. So I knew I was going to flags. The planks of wood, I would cut into strips, that'd be like the stripes. And then I knew doing my mixed media that the backdrop would be the mixed media. And then from there, they became a barbecue motif that kind of have some playfulness and some humor, kind of tinker with it like it's not all serious. But the planks of wood, I got that idea when I had longitudinal cuts, also cross sectional cut the planks of wood. And when I cut it, it looked like an overly well done piece of Delaney. I mean, it looked like it was charred on the outside, it had that texture. And then the floral motifs were like the pumpkin, and then I was finding glass remnant pieces, as well as the flower, the rags. I had a stack of rags.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: When we opened our office, we were so lucky to be able to hold Peters art for a year, and I still have some of his pieces. He did this triptych that every time somebody would come in, they would be sort of drawn to it in particular. It was like a three roses essentially and one was a rags, one was of light bulbs, and the other was the pumpkin that you spoke of. And people were fascinated. It's very textural and has depth to it. So I would just, for those of you who are not artists and you're not like following along for how exactly, I just want you to know that we will provide a link for two Peters art so you're able to see all of these pieces. But I do know that of all of the art we've ever had in this office, that was the one that triptych was the thing that always drew the most attention, questions and admiration.
Peter Alan: Hmm, thank you. Thank you. Yeah. And that fire exit, I love how you're honoring and you love that.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I felt a little bad because you were like, it should go up here by your door. Well, by the way, you can purchase that from Peter because it's not mine. It's on loan. And next day, while you're talking, I'm going to ask, don't get distracted. I'm going to get up and I'm going to bring it over here. We're going to look at it together because there's a playfulness, humor and the seriousness in how you take these found pieces from this bad thing. And then you turn them into something else that can be sort of reused, but that is very playful.
Peter Alan: It's it. Yeah. So that was my WiFi box. Let's get this now a fire exit sign.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Okay. I'm just going to show people, and then you can talk about it. So it says fire exits. And then when you turn it, I'm just going to talk, it will stay on my camera. And this is his cable box. I absolutely see there is where the cable mamma jammas would have gone in, I think that's the technical term cable mamma jammas.
Peter Alan: Nice.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: But this is it. And it lives over my shoulder for every podcast that we've had so far. But this is the sort of playfulness that Peter brings to an end. You need this from an artist is such an important role to play in how we recover, heal, find perspective and connect post disasters. Even if the art is temporary, even if you know it's playful, or serious, or written like graphic art, like Brian Fee's did in the fire story., artists have an incredibly important role to play? And that's one of the reasons why Peter, you are my first artist guest on purpose because I'm going to go put this back though so you can talk about it while I put it back.
Peter Alan: Great. Yeah, that's pretty much it. You got it. Jennifer, should I tell them how we met?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. Yes, tell them how we met.
Peter Alan: I cold called Jennifer Gray Thompson with the ReBuild NorthBay Foundation. I had accomplished about 28 mixed media pieces of fire art. At the time when I went in with a presentation, I had kind of a layout of pictures and telling her my story and that I was wanting to accrue three different nonprofits, and I wanted her to be one of them. She gave me some great feedback, some great coaching. And did you accept? Did you actually give me a little reconsideration of how I was going to redirect the 15% proceeds. But then?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I do remember sitting with you in my old offices going through, but one of our philosophies, or mine has been in the running of ReBuild that, I love investing in really great people with really smart ideas. And I thought that your idea was really great. But my concern was that you would just lose everything, and you were creating these really beautiful pieces. I didn't want you to give so much away. I think your initial idea was like 50% or something, and I was saying, you don't need to give that much away. I just didn't think that that was the best way financially for you to go right here to protect you.
Peter Alan: I cut it way back down to five. Anyway, but the work has not been so much as a selling point. It's been more of a showing point. But yes, you call me months afterwards, and I just felt so grateful that I had gone in there and asserted myself. I was being rewarded by you saying, by the way, we have a new office, and I'd be honored, are you interested in bringing some of the artwork, and it was just great. It's just been great ever since.
"We can help with resiliency. Our job is to make something good come out of [a disaster]." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And it's a two phase also that I wanted you, and then I wanted you to meet Irina Sereti. The curator for all the art in her office except for photograph investing is all made by, is all firearms. And I think that that's very important. It was my theory in the beginning that if anyone walks in your work chair to, A- they have to have experienced a disaster. I don't want them to work here because I can't explain what it's like. And the other side is to keep central to our focus and our thesis that we don't get too bogged down in what happens, like we're not firefighters. We can help with resiliency, our job is to make something good come out of it.
Peter Alan: Yeah.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And I think you and I have always been very aligned in that sense. It's one of the things I enjoy so much about you as a person, but also the role of art in a disaster. So can you talk a little bit about that? What do you have to stay for a community or somebody who's like, say, a city manager, or a funder who's sitting down and they're deciding what we are going to fund here? What are we going to prioritize, especially in our first year post disaster? Talk about the role of the artists and why that function is so critical?
"I couldn't keep up with myself. It was like my best problem I've ever had!" -Peter Alan
Peter Alan: Well, you called me a second responder. I've never heard that term before for an artist. I've long thought about what that pretty on a deep level what that looks like? How that consists? Yeah, the fact that I was there to cry over the loss of my property where it turned into something else. It was this birthing near the phoenix rising of insight and inspiration. And not just hope, but like a real direction. I could see what it was actually going to look like. I knew I was going to the flags. So when I was going through the debris, I was looking to see, will that fit that art? I was so clear, and I'm very excited, a lot of energy, a lot of drive, I've had more drive from out of this series from that incident than I have drawing a portrait of a beautiful woman or landscape, beautiful landscape. I just felt so driven for so many months there, and it was just pouring out of me. I mean, I couldn't keep up with myself. It was like my best problem I've ever had. I couldn't sleep. I was so driven. So excited to do the work. Some of the other parts of it, though, yeah.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I definitely set this up because I wanted you to share your personal story because I think it's the personal stories so much that draw us together and share the humanity of it. I never liked to show anybody like, Oh, I just got from A to B, and I produced these beautiful pieces of art. Do you know that because that's the way that it is, and I think that it doesn't provide a roadmap for others about how to get to that place.
"It's the resilience that we have for ourselves. If we don't do that, there is no growth." -Peter Alan
Peter Alan: Yeah, we all have our own way. My way is not the next person's way necessarily. We all have different timing and means of coping. This is not my first severe lesson in adversity. My brother committed suicide six years ago, or seven years ago, five years ago for my stepdad. I've lost things at very deep levels. one of the authors that I revisit was Thomas Moore, Dark Night Of The Soul. You got to face that resistance, and it's the resistance that we have for ourselves, but also there's a resistance that's being met. And we have to push into that resistance. And that resistance is the dark tunnel that Thomas Moore talks about. And if we don't do that, there was no growth. Now, some people don't want to grow, they just want to stay the same, and God bless them. That's their path. That's their journey.
"There is no guarantee in ignoring the trauma of a disaster. Not dealing with it is not an option." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It's like in a disaster that whether or not you lost your home, that all any community that goes through disaster, you are a disaster affected, your fire affected. There isn't an escape from what happened, you cannot pretend it didn't happen. We did a whole podcast on mental health. I think that for mental and spiritual health, I hope that newly fire affected communities or newly disaster affected communities that they consider always placing the artists at the center of healing, especially that first year. Because it's often a time when words will not suffice. You need markers, you go to say, to show people when they walk into our office and they can see that this artist had used what had happened to create beauty. And we have about six artists, their work here, but say, oh, wow, it was big, it's important enough to actually put your energy into creating art. But I would also hope that funders would consider more seriously, how do you fund art post disaster? What can it do for communities? If you have it in the normal course of life, if you want to ignore stuff, well, good luck with that. Number one, that's not gonna work anyway. But then you put in a disaster in the center of it and there is no guarantee ignoring what happens. The trauma of a disaster, you don't have to live in it for the rest of your life. But not dealing with it is something that isn't an option.
Peter Alan: I think where you're at with this question, I understand now. So yeah, it wasn't all peaches and roses, and making art and creativity for Peter. I was having to be very responsible about stuff. Yeah, I applied for artists grants, I got a number of them. This mentioned a couple, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, there's The Change, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, as also, not remember the name. But no, I did a lot of applying for funding and for grants, and that was big for my financial. At this time, I was put into a FEMA RV or the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Yeah, I stayed with my mom for a couple of months there, and then that's when FEMA had arranged for a number of us that were still displaced, or resolved, however, that they put it in a bunch of FEMA RV's at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds. And that was a very tough 18 months for me. I was very unhappy, and I spent most of my, if not every evening out having happy hour, and wine, I leaned on a lot of wine for a good couple of years. Never to get drunk. It was more something that I could do with two glasses. Rarely would I have three, sometimes, I would. And there's a number of restaurants that I became like a regular at like norm coming into cheers. I lean on that in my coping. And yet, right after the fires, the lax center over at the press Democrat, that's where FEMA came in, Salvation Army Catholic Charities.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It's called a Local Assistance Center,right?
Peter Alan: Yeah. So yeah, it was an emergency post for the fire survivor folks to go in and get their stuff put back together. Driver's license taxes. I took her all that. I was very diligent, very earnest about that for a good couple of weeks. And then I went into the grants to kind of see how the money is going to be.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I'm looking to you, Peter, for some words or guidance. And the podcast is called How To Disaster. And in part of what we're trying to do is sort of memorialize and encapsulate some of the lessons that we learned in 2017. And the three plus years since then, with the hope that communities that maybe we can't get to, or you have somebody who's just sort of googling it has just undergone a disaster. They're an artist, or they are a city manager, or a county supervisor and they're thinking, what are some of the tools that I can use in order to help my community come back? And what we want to put forth in this podcast is that art. Art is a major tool for how to come back from a disaster and how to heal. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Peter Alan: Really tough with the COVID still going on. And yet, I think the word is really preparation. In 2017, nobody was really prepared. I think California, counties, cities, and nonprofits and persons like yourself, you've learned a lot since 2017. We know more now how to live that we did not know then. And like having a generator, okay.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Hold on. What I think about a lot is that you brought healing back into the community, healing for yourself, but also to the community through your art. We're not the only place for your art to appear, it also appeared in City Hall in Santa Rosa. How does one prepare as an artist for a disaster, but said after it happened, how does one contribute towards the healing of a community? So it's like in a toolkit for artistry, your role of art in disaster?
Peter Alan: Well, you mentioned how we're second responders, and then we have opportunity, and that is that needs to be supported, right? So how can others support other artists? I don't feel like I have a lot of real understanding to that.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, what about like--
Peter Alan: I could scan my photographs for my preparation. I mean, I don't know if I have a real great answer, or a lot of clarity, or understanding on how I can answer that. Maybe something about me that I'm missing that you could tell me that gives me the answer that let me see if I can go with it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Okay. Again, the way that I see it is disaster happened and you lost a lot. Quite frankly, you lost more than I do in that disaster. You did, right? But what you did is that you literally went through and scraped through the remnants of what was left and then created beauty, and then you shared it with the world. And then one of your first instincts was, how can you benefit the greater public sphere even more by doing donations, which is how you ended up in my office. It's that sort of instinct to create beauty. Quite frankly, what was an absolute shit experience, and turn it into something that made the world a little more beautiful, a little better? One of the things that we're trying to do in a totally different way, and I think that artists have a role where they can almost put that effort or that instinct into being like, through the physical beauty, like I love your fire exit sign that's in here, or the public art, or I love the guy who did the murals on the homes in Paradise with the people who live there.
"If it's not lost, it's adversity. And adversity is a catalyst." -Peter Alan
Peter Alan: How about this? How about if it's not lost its adversity. And adversity is really a catalyst. Can it be like the crisis that's been going on for the last year? But really, it's been a long time coming. What happened on Wednesday? I'm not surprised. I mean, it's been four years in the makings. What's going on with our environmental crisis? Is the US calling it a catastrophic crisis? It's not just wildfires in California and this part of the country, it's hurricanes, it's the rising waters, the polar bears that don't have ice and they were swimming in land.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Did you notice this year though, in particular, I feel like I have learned more on artists in the sense of medians, songwriters, people who are singing songs on YouTube who wrote or recorded those 40 years ago, people who are turning are very painful, crunchy, scary time into like snippets of beauty that I feel are sustaining so much of this country, in this world.
"We need to be supportive. People need to have importance, to be viewers of it." -Peter Alan
Peter Alan: Well, for the second responders, I mean, we need to be supportive to people, we need to have a likened importance to be viewers of it. I'm not a musician, but I love music, I support other musicians. I love to cook myself, I love to go out and I appreciate other people's cooking. It's just being interested in somebody else's thought, or their perspective on not just mine, it's being interested in each other. A lot of my immediate community did not take to my art, it's a revisit of trauma. When they look at these pieces, some of them are reminded that it's somebody's house that burned down and can be somewhat unsettling for some viewers. And then I've had, where a woman came up to me crying in tears, she was so just rocked her whole world, and how grateful that I did that work and she was so moved. It was like a real process for her own. That surprised me a bit. And then the other is like, Oh, yeah, this is really important. Wow, how did you know to do this? Who does this? I mean, who makes art out of their burnt home and then turn it into something else? Yeah, I don't know if that answers the question.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Okay, it's good. It's good. I just want to say that I know Peter, the thing that I have a really, this has been a tough three plus years for a lot of people. It's been hard to run a non profit startup after a disaster. And I hope many things that I'm proud of, and many things that I hold dear to my heart, and having encountered you is certainly one of those things for sure. I have a lot of respect for the quality of your heart, and the quality of your optimism and the determination to continue to connect in incredibly difficult times. And to not shy away from that, which is painful. But instead say, Yep, that was painful. That was not good, and here's something beautiful. I wish that the world had far more Peter's in it, but I'll take the one that I know and be grateful for him. Thank you for spending this time with me. Total huge acknowledgement.
Peter Alan: Totally got a thank you. And reciprocally, you are very highly valued and important to me as well.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You're a good soul.