The Role of Art in Recovery After a Disaster with Rina Faletti, PhD
“Art is actually a lifeline…When presented in conjunction with important ideas, art can change us inside. It changes the way we see, think, feel, and the way that we talk about things that are important to us.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
When a disaster strikes, the conversation typically focuses on what has been lost: homes, livelihoods, and even lives. The emotional and spiritual toll of a disaster can be harder to recognize, but it is every bit as important.
But in times like these, it’s crucial to remember that humans are creative creatures, and we have access to a wonderful tool that can help us heal: ART. As survivors work to rebuild their homes and their lives, art can help them feel less alone by providing an opportunity for shared experience and expression. Art teaches them to see things differently—to notice details, to find beauty where they may not have seen it before, and to connect with their community and themselves.
Art-Responds was curated by Dr. Rina Faletti with the same vision. As the importance of art and community became apparent in disaster recovery, Dr. Faletti began gathering artist-responders that are also active in making this vision possible: Oscar Aguilar Olea, Julia Crane, Andrea Dale, Lowell Downey, Laura Resen, Jeff Frost, Linda Gass, Edmund Ian Grant, Norma I. Quintana, Kristi Rene, and Brian Fies who is also our guest in Season 3 Episode 6. As they strive to bring art into disaster recovery, they also open the opportunity for deeper conversations on community engagement, disaster preparedness, and recovery.
Tune in as Dr. Faletti discusses how important it is to introduce art as one of the first responses to recovery and not the last, what gathering artist-responders and putting together an exhibit is like, the unifying and healing power of art, and the importance of storytelling in recovery.
- 03:04: Fire Goes Where Water Flows
- 12:25: We are Reflections of Nature
- 17:56: Gathering Artist-Responders Together
- 23:15: The Role of Art in Recovery
- 28:46: Why Art Should be on the Front of Recovery
- 37:18: Art Brings Community Together
- 42:00: The Unifying Power of Art
- 45:45: Meet the Artist-Responders
Art is a powerful tool in disaster recovery. Tune in to this week’s episode as @JenGrayThompson and Dr. Rina Faletti, the founding Director of Art-Responds, discuss how art can provide a way for survivors to channel their emotions into something constructive, either by creating it themselves or by observing the work of others. #Recover #Rebuild #Reimagine #NorthBay #podcast #wildfire #DisasterRecovery #AfterTheFire #Season3 #HowToDisaster #art #environmentalart #artistresponders #communityengagement #trauma #hope #healing
09:24: “Having the personal effect of the wildfire made my work ever more important.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
10:40: “Standing shoulder-to-shoulder looking at artworks on the wall allowed us all to have new conversations to look at fire literally in a different way. And perhaps to think about fire even in the wake of the disaster as being something where we could find a creative way through it.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
12:25: “We are also part of nature. Any process that we go through inside of ourselves, especially these personal transformational moments, is reflective in some way at some level, of what’s going on around us in nature as well.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
23:40: “Art is actually a lifeline…When presented in conjunction with important ideas, art can change us inside. It changes the way we see, think, feel, and the way that we talk about things that are important to us.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
26:30: “Being in a room full of art, made by mindful artists, arranged in a mindful way can really help to heal and calm us. And we need to learn to do that more.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
28:16: “Art gives us a chance to connect at a level where we can share our grief and loss, but also create more things that can be found along the way.” -Jennifer Thompson
37:18: “Art helps us create community.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
40:16: “Every single person lost something and there are no apologies. Everyone’s loss is real and everyone’s loss is so deep and tragic.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
42:24: “When we’ve just been through a disaster and we’re in an art museum looking at thoughtful, mindful, highly talented artists creating things for us to think about, we don’t stand looking at each other fighting about our ideas, we stand side to side.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
49:21: “Telling your fire story storytelling after a disaster is so important and should be almost automatic as a way to capture history, and also it’s very cathartic.” -Jennifer Thompson
Dr. Rina Faletti is the Director of Special Projects at Jacki Headley University Gallery CSU Chico and the Founding Director of Art-Responds. She connects diverse communities through the power of art and engages them in key conversations, especially on the topic of wildfires and environmental awareness in California and around the globe.
Dr. Faletti is a collaborative leader and loves working with organizers, curators, artists, educators, scholars, archivists, collectors, activists, and stakeholders of broad diversity to shape the cultural environments in which communities can thrive.
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rinafaletti/
Connect with Art Responds:
- Website: https://www.art-responds.com/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ArtResponds/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/art_responds/
Connect with Amazing Artist-Responders:
- Oscar Aguilar Olea– https://oscareggtempera.com/works
- Julia Crane- https://julia-crane.com/
- Andrea Dale- https://www.andrea-dale.com/
- Lowell Downey- https://www.artclarity.com/
- Brian Fies- https://brianfies.blogspot.com/
- Jeff Frost– https://www.frostjeff.com/
- Linda Gass– https://www.lindagass.com/
- Edmund Ian Grant- http://edmundiangrant.com/
- Norma I. Quintana- https://normaiquintana.com/
- Kristi Rene- http://kristirene.com/
- Laura Resen- http://www.lauraresen.com/
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Hi, my name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, and I am the CEO of After the Fire. Welcome to the podcast, How to Disaster, recover, rebuild and reimagine. In this podcast, we bring you the very best practices, best hearts and great ideas from other disaster affected communities. Thank you for joining us.
Welcome back once again to the How to Disaster Podcast. Today, our guest is Rina Faletti. Rina Faletti is a friend and somebody that I know and shows up in a very unique way after a disaster to respond. I met Rina about four years ago when I first started this job and she showed up and had done this amazing curation that she’s in a process of curating the show called Art Responds that she runs in Napa, and she’s done many projects with fire affected communities. Since then, she’s somebody that I like to call and get her advice like, how does she, can you communicate with this community, talk to them about the role in disaster. Art places a unique role especially in that first year of post disaster because it can actually bring people together and provide a sort of common ground and common duty for people to hold on to some measure of hope and progress and also on honoring what was lost.
I think Rina is probably the most accomplished person that I’ve ever met in this space, so I’m very happy to have her. A lot in the art at our office is actually curated by Rina. And even this piece back here which is the fire exit sign by Peter Alan. Peter Alan came to me with Rina, and I’m very grateful to her. She is currently the gallery coordinator for the Jacki Headley University Art Gallery at CSU Chico. She’s gonna come on today, we’re gonna talk about the role of arts in disaster and how important it is. And I’m so thrilled to have her today.
If you wanna know more about Rina and her work, then I highly encourage you to head to art-responds.com. We will also drop that link below in the comments so you can find it and visit her work. Again, I highly encourage you to check out, especially your newly fire affected community or disaster affected community like what Rina has done and accomplished.
Once again, art-responds.com. Thank you.
So again, I’m so happy to have Rina Faletti on the podcast today. Welcome Rina.
Rina Faletti: Thank you so much, Jennifer. I love talking with you, and I’m happy to be here today.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You and I have a relationship that goes back really since the fires. And I’m just really, I did this in the setup, have already done an introduction of you. And one of the things that I talked about is how critical it is to actually introduce art almost immediately as soon as possible after a great disaster. It helps with mental well being, it helps with providing hope, love and beauty, but also honoring what happened. If you don’t mind today, I would actually like to start with you telling your own fire story, and how you came to this particular work?
Rina Faletti: That’s a great question, because that’s exactly how I came to this particular work. So everyone starts the 2017 while North Bay fires by talking about October 8, 2017. I live on the top of the Mayacamas mountains right between the Napa Valley and the Sonoma Valley. If you know the towns there, Yountville is on one side of me and Glen Ellen’s on the other, and I’m literally at the top of the ridge in a forest. What used to be a forest. And at about midnight that night, I happened to be up late and noticed the glow across the Napa Valley. Called my husband and said, oh, well, we didn’t think it was across the Napa Valley. We actually thought it was right below us because the fire was so big that we were looking at it. I said: “Oh, gosh, there’s a fire right below us. We better call our neighbors and see if they see it also.” And they said, yes. But it’s not right below us. It’s all the way across the valley that’s 20 to 25 miles away, and it was so gigantic that we couldn’t, at first, grasp the fact of what we were looking at. And that was the Vaca Fire which was across the valley from us. At the same time, what we later soon found out was that we had all these other fires raging in Santa Rosa, which we could not see from where we were. And then right over the ridge from us, the Nun’s Fire which was sweeping down toward Glen Ellen and Kenwood.
The winds were horrendous at our house that branches and trees were banging against our house. I could hardly go out the door without being pushed by the wind. And so over time that night, we realized that we had this mega regional crazy fire going that was literally burning everything around us. Watch the news all night like everyone else. We were fearful, but we also knew the fire wasn’t right near our home. However, by 6:00 in the morning, we realized that when the winds had died down, the fires were still burning at the bottom of our ridge on the Sonoma side and that they were now starting to move as fire does up the watershed and the canyons toward our house. So we had more time than the folks that night had to figure out what to do, and we realized within an hour or so by 8:00 in the morning that we had to evacuate. So we had the time to pack our two cars with the things that were important. And we went to my mom, she lived in a small apartment in Napa, before we left for her house.
I called her, but what do you say when you wake someone up? I waited until I think 8:00 or 9:00 mom didn’t get up before then. And she answered the phone and I to this moment, I’m like, what do you say to someone when essentially the entire world around you is burning? So I had to tell her that we were coming to her house to stay in Napa. She was unaffected by the fires down there, but she started crying on the phone and saying: “What do you mean everything’s on fire?” It was really true. Everything was on fire. So long story short, we ended up going to my mom’s for a few days and then ended up in a hotel for eight months as long term evacuees. Was this because our house burned down? Luckily, no. But we live in a 20 acre personal forest where everything around us burned. I live in a forest of Douglas fir trees which are 120 feet tall. And when we were able to go back three weeks after. We were some of the last ones to be able to go back in. Everyone says it was surreal, but it was like looking at a black and white photograph with one color.
Wes Anderson colored things in the middle which was my house. It was a brand new home. It was painted sort of, actually, you see this poster for one of my exhibitions in the background, that orange glow. I actually painted part of my exterior, this orange color, but it was to match the madrone bark that was also in our forest. And now suddenly, it was the color of fire. I was like, ah, this is so weird. The fire had surrounded our home with luck, and also for volunteer firefighters nearby, our house was saved. But what ensued was the strangest, during that eight months in a hotel was a strange life transformation for me for two reasons. One, because my entire life now had to focus on what am I going to do, my husband still had to go to work, what am I going to do now? We could not move back in, all of our utilities had been destroyed. I suddenly had a destroyed forest around me that would become unsafe very soon because trees were going to start falling. And so I spent that time sort of figuring out what to do. But at the same time, and most importantly for what we’re talking about today, I made a transformation internally. Because I’m a water historian. I’m an environmental historian. I’m a watershed historian, which means I’m now a fire shed historian because those land, geographical and topographical things are the same.
“Having the personal effect of the wildfire made my work ever more important.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
And as a firefighter, CAL Fire firefighter told me who was at my house later during this period of time, he said, we always say, fire goes where water flows. And I have always remembered that little rhyme, because it’s true. That’s how the fire came back up to our house. It came right up a canyon, which is a watershed. So I’m a water historian, I’m an environmental historian, I’m an art historian and an architectural historian, and a landscape historian. I’m also an exhibition curator. Suddenly, my professional life was informed by a personal crisis, and I already was so dedicated to this work, and my connection with the earth and all this, intuitive stuff that was important to me. But having the personal effect of the wildfire to add to that made my work ever more important.
“Standing shoulder-to-shoulder looking at artworks on the wall allowed us all to have new conversations to look at fire literally in a different way. And perhaps to think about fire even in the wake of the disaster as being something where we could find a creative way through it.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
It was in that hotel that I conceived the idea to create an exhibition of established artists who are already creating work about the environment, like I was already doing work about the environment. But now, they had a whole new body of work that was focused on fire. And so we were able to create with a lot of fundraising, friend raising donations of space of all kinds of things, and exhibition for three months in Napa that opened on the year anniversary of the 2017 fires, or rather on October 9, 2018, and Downtown Napa and a brand new retail space that was donated for us to use at first street Napa. And we held a transformational exhibition that the community was able, our surrounding community was able to benefit from very much like the exhibitions that were also going on at the time on the Sonoma side in Sonoma County where three or four museums, and galleries, and art organizations also brought communities together for the disastrous losses that had taken place for the communities there. So we found that standing shoulder to shoulder, looking at artwork on the wall allowed us all to have new conversations to look at fire, literally in a different way. And perhaps, to think about fire even in the wake of the disaster as being something where we could find a creative way through it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So I have so many questions just from that. But one of the things that I would like to talk about is year one. So I do want to make a side note that the North Bay fires were actually 11 fires, and most people when they were fires, they just think about the Tubbs Fire, what happened in Santa Rosa. But actually, the devastation was across four counties, and it was the worst natural disaster for Mendocino County. I live in Sonoma Valley not far from you, we actually had more damage in our district than the city of Santa Rosa did, and most people don’t or the one another district in Santa Rosa. So but so much of that story comes from, who is able to sort of stand up, but to move past that. You were, literally, your house was, when I drive your road, it was a startling thing to see how different the landscape looked. and we were also all as a community whether or not we’ve lost our homes sort of reckoning with the force of nature and are sort of at the mercy of it. Some of the agency we can take back, which is also in a way of healing and honoring what happened is through art specifically that I’ve reached out to you many times over this. So take me in that first year while you were doing this curation, how did that help you sort of reconcile with this other side of nature, which is both destructive and revealing?
“We are also part of nature. Any process that we go through inside of ourselves, especially these personal transformational moments, is reflective in some way at some level, of what’s going on around us in nature as well.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
Rina Faletti: So I think the first thing is that we are also part of nature. So we in ourselves, any process that we go through inside of ourselves, especially these personal transformational moments are reflective in some way at some level of what’s going on around us in nature as well. So part of it was just reflecting on what is it that got destroyed here? And what is being destroyed? And as an art historian, I also think symbolically, like that’s automatically where I go. So I’m like, how is fire real here? Like, it’s so real. But then people want to talk about how fire is also symbolic, like what parts of our lives didn’t actually physically burn down. But what things did this fire, we’ll talk about destruction and crisis first, destroy and break apart and make us lose? For people who lost their homes, they lost their lives in a way, several of the artists who were in the exhibition have lost their homes and their studios. So in some cases, a lifetime of work was gone so they had to reconcile with that. And I thought about them first. So the first thing I thought of when this reflection about loss and fire as both an artistic medium and a way on canvas, at least, some artists actually use fire to make work. And this exhibition, I wasn’t reaching out to those artists. I reached out to artists through the local arts council who had set up a sort of hotline for artists to gather, to let people know how they were and what was happening to them.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Can I put a pin in that for just a second? I believe you’re referring to Creative Sonoma which is right, are you referring to that?
Rina Faletti: Remember that there’s a mountain between Salem Valley in the Napa Valley? Well, there’s a mountain culturally to so, yes, Creative Sonoma from day one, along with other organizations and museums were creating these lifelines for artists. Yes, I’m talking about Arts Council Napa Valley, which made an effort to do more personal outreach with artists to find out who was doing what and where they were. It wasn’t quite the platform that Sonoma had created, which is part of the reason why I needed to do an exhibition so we were not facing the thousands and thousands and thousands of losses in Napa County that we did in Sonoma County. So there was a different response.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I really quickly wanted to because of the How to Disaster part of it, that if someone is listening to this who’s in an area that hasn’t yet experienced a disaster has just experienced on, I just want to know that there is a place, and it’s a really important space to hold your arts councils for the county government to actually stand in nonprofits, to step up and not only respond, but really support that kind of very specific targeting of loss for artists, and to help them also facilitate some of that healing. So I just wanted to note that there’s precedents for that, there’s a reason for it, and we strongly endorsed that activity. Keep going.
Rina Faletti: Absolutely. Yeah, no, we could talk about that for a very long time and move. And listeners have looked at the communities that have been destroyed or severely damaged since 2017. And these catastrophic levels and how your organization, and my work, and many others are trying to help people build that because it’s also different for every community, how those networks get built, as you guys are creating them. So in Napa, the network was not quite as advanced as Sonoma had created for several different reasons. But I was able, through some networking to get in touch with the artists whose studios had burned down. Again, I want to repeat, I’m talking about gathering established artists who have decades of experience behind them thinking about the environment and environmental art. And so when the fire comes, they’re immediately responding in really amazing, creative and thoughtful ways about how do we frame this disaster and those moments, essentially in a rectilinear space. Bryan Fies whose picture is behind me because he will use his artwork for a poster for an exhibition did it in a book form, and several of our artists did it on other kinds of art. But I called the artists who had lost their studios, talked to them about joining an exhibition, they said yes, and then I just kept looking.
I had time on my hands. I was not doing it, I had to quit other jobs, I had to focus on my property and my daughter getting to school every day from a hotel, we were eating with the other evacuees. The hotel had closed entirely to guests, had canceled October guestlist or whatever. And firefighters and evacuees were staying there so we were talking a lot about this. So yeah, so during that curation time, I was calling artists, finding out who in California and in the North Bay were working on fire, and just gathered a group of 11 artists and two, three filmmakers who were doing absolutely exceptional work that was not only reactive toward the fire. Because a side note I’d like to make is, many people found individual ways to use art and creativity to deal with the fire. I mean, the most basic example would be writing in your journal entries just to try to deal with it. Or trying to paint what you had seen when the flames were coming over, whether you’re an artist or not. What I was looking for were those artists who had the experience of thinking about these types of things behind their work, which gives it a depth that is really great for discussion when audiences come through. So I found my artists, 11 of them, two films, three filmmakers, and then I had to find a venue. And it was quick. Exhibitions get planned in a year or two. And I knew in my own heart, we’re opening October 8 or 9th of 2018. It has to be at the year mark of the show. And so I just needed to work with the community with community, funders, anybody I could, and it took a long time to find a venue. We finally had one donated, which is a retail space that I mentioned.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Can you take us back really quickly just for, because I think people would be curious to know, like in your approach to people who had lost their life’s work and we’re still holding the ability in the inclination, the tenacity and the talent to actually create art. When you first approached them, were they already in the process of creating that? Or did you provide them an opportunity to do it that would be supportive and have a place to live?
Rina Faletti: Both things happen. But what mostly happened was these artists were already creating amazing pieces of work. Either digital work, for some of them, their materials were burned. Several of the artists had never worked in digital formats before. As soon as their studios burned down, they immediately had to switch to learning how, or practicing digital art. There were several who did digital, one working only on her phone. She had done analog photography her entire career, and then had to only use her iPhone and learn how to make these exceptional, amazing, rich photographs of the objects that she found as she was sorting through the literal ashes of her disappeared home. Another couple had escaped with their lives and she just created these digital paintings of her memory of the fire as they were escaping. I mean, a tree fell down in front of them as they were escaping and they had to find a way out.
In fact, she called one of her paintings One Way Out. Because in that particular place, there was one way for them to get out and they got out. So the artists that I contacted were already creating the work or had actually already done it. And this is only, we’re only talking a few months, even less in some cases after the fires. In another case, though, there was one artist who had been working on fire and had been following fire and photographing it, and filming it for several years, and was creating a film. And so what I did was create an opportunity for him to finish his film for our opening in October of 2018. So we needed to raise some funding for him to rapidly complete his art film, which we did. I’m not mentioning artists’ names only because I would rather mention everyone than only a few of them. So I don’t know if we want the opportunity to do that. I already mentioned Brian, he’s been on a podcast with you so his name is out there, but it would be nice to have the opportunity to mention them at some point.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That would be great. And in fact, we can make sure that we also put a list when we publish this. And we can also provide links to their actual pages as well as yourself.
Rina Faletti: Yes.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We mentioned your website, the Art Responds. Yeah. So we love that. We definitely want to give them a shout out and talk about that. Can you talk to us about why, I mean, I just want to dive a little more deeply into the role of art, and how critical it is for recovery, for resiliency, for responding to this. You sort of got into that a little bit, but I think for people who have not been through a major disaster, there’s always before, there’s always after, there is that space where you’re living it in between that has to be, there’s a reckoning that comes from that. So if you can talk about, why should we put scarce resources towards art after a disaster? Like, if you could make the case for that because I just think it’s so important, and I fear that I don’t do the job I should when that comes up.
“Art is actually a lifeline…When presented in conjunction with important ideas, art can change us inside. It changes the way we see, think, feel, and the way that we talk about things that are important to us.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
Rina Faletti: Yeah. We do that in the education system too, everywhere. Art seems, and in the general sense to be an extra, to be frosting on the cake, to be the cool thing that you buy when you have some extra money or you go to a new city. So you visit the museum, the thing that’s different for me. I can talk to myself about myself and people like me, is that for us, art is actually a lifeline. There is no moment in my life where getting through something, or finding out something, or discovering something, or changing as a person, or as a professional has not taken place without art being involved, and art leading me toward new ways to see things. And that’s the main thing is that art, as a curator and an educator, I press this point. When presented in a certain way, in conjunction with important ideas, art can change us inside, and it also changes the way we see. It changes the way we think and feel, and then it changes the way that we talk about things that are important to us. Because we’re led by images that are extremely important that move us in ways that are life changing. And in our current 21st century where images are everywhere, it’s extremely important for us to learn how to look, and what do we want to look? What are we bartered with in a disaster?
“Being in a room full of art, made by mindful artists, arranged in a mindful way can really help to heal and calm us. And we need to learn to do that more.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
We see the forest on fire, we see firefighters and people running from the fire. In war pictures, it’s these terrible, it’s all disastrous, and depressing, really. When we can take that looking and in a guided way, look at images with a little bit more time and a little bit more space, and a little bit more mindfulness, and we look at images that were made in a mindful way about those same disasters, we can stop and be much more reflective. We can kind of put our fear aside a little bit and that terrorizing sensation that we get in ourselves when we think about and see images, and we can actually, through art, look literally a more creative and broad way, and that can help to calm us down to heal us. And more than anything, at least in the work I do, it helps us to reach out to others and talk about, have conversations about what it is. If it’s our feelings, if it’s the thoughts we’re having, if it’s the worry about our community or our families, if it’s the losses that we’ve had being in a room full of art made by mindful artists arranged in a mindful way can really help to heal and calm us,and we need to learn to do that more. And it comes first in the list, not last in the list. So looking at art when you’re traumatized can be healing from the gecko. It’s not frosting on the cake, it’s the meat and potatoes so to speak.
“Art gives us a chance to connect at a level where we can share our grief and loss, but also create more things that can be found along the way.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m going to have you pause your clip to get a quick commercial break, but we’re going to come right back with Dr. Rina Faletti.
And we are back again, thank you for sticking with us. We have Dr. Rina Faletti with us. We’re talking about how art responds to disaster. And one of the things you were just talking about is how art should be one of the first responses that we have out the gate post disaster, and really almost like a step one to getting us back. It reminds me of this term that I often use, and I didn’t make it up, it’s called tragic optimism. And it’s like, yes, bad things will happen in your life, but it’s really though and how you respond to it. And I think that one of the things that I love so much about what you’re saying is that art gives us a chance to connect at a level where we can share our grief and what was lost, but also sort of create more things that can be found along the way. And I think that’s why it’s so in particular important to communities to support after a fire. And so I just was hoping, you can wax poetic as long as you want on that one.
Rina Faletti: Yeah, no, I think that what I’m thinking about now is what I can say, but what I’ve heard other people say who came to see the exhibition, for example. I had several friends who were afraid to go, it was just too soon for them. Their houses weren’t rebuilt, they didn’t even have building permits yet. I don’t want to come, I’m afraid I’m gonna, I don’t know what to do. So I did a couple private showings for people who were afraid and I just let them look. I did not talk with them. It was a quiet experience for them. And finally, they would say something like, this is really, really emotionally talk. And at the same time, I’m so glad to get this. Because it is said over and over, I can look at things differently. When I see this artwork, I can see that someone else, an artist, a talented and experienced artist has the ability to frame this in a way that I can’t and allows me to see it in a way that I couldn’t. And what a healing moment, and I was very proud when I heard. I had eighth grade classes come in, their teachers came first to make sure it was going to be okay for them so I made sure we did no disaster pictures. That was one of the things that I told my artists. I’m not including anything that’s going to show the disaster as like you would see on the news or whatever. I want them to be slightly removed and a little bit more reflective. And so eighth graders came in, and boy, how articulate they were in telling me that they didn’t know how to think about the fires and the wildfires that had been raging around them until they came to the art exhibition. That’s very powerful.
And then another lady who said, many people said it, but she said, came to me directly and said: “This made me cry, and it made me smile.” And it’s the first time I’ve smiled since the fires. I’m like, yes. So the trauma of a crisis like this does not go away. It’s been four and a half years. You and I have been sharing back and forth about the progress on my property. We had the logout trees acres and acres of completely burned 120 foot high trees, then I had to cut through the rest of the forest to get the lower stuff that had not completely burned out of there. I didn’t want another fire hazard in my forest the next time a fire comes through or whatever. Got all that done, then we cut it up. Then we did a million burn piles, which were safe burn piles, not a million.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You have a burn pile. Burn pile we’re all about like mild fires to prevent mega fires.
Rina Faletti: I chip as much as I could, and then we cut up as much as we could and leave it on the ground so it could do its organic thing, and then we’re left with still acres and acres of wood that we had to get rid of that was burned and destroyed. And so we made 30, 40, 50 burn piles over the last four years. Do you know, Jennifer, that last week is the first week that I have had somebody planting something.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, wow, that’s awesome. I’m so glad.
Rina Faletti: We took advantage of Napa County’s reopening project after the fires since the fire, even before, but since the fires in earnest, they’ve been collecting acorns throughout the valley. I got the last batch of black oak acorns that were in the freezer at the Resource Conservation District, and we’ve planted them on my property. And then yesterday, I talked to a nursery that has 110 maple trees for me. And then I talked to another nursery that has 41 redwood trees for me. Oh, and then the first, I’m going to plant a few furs to remember the ones that went up in smoke.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: What I noticed about it, but also I celebrate your diversity of your plantings because everyone’s like, oh, we by the state, they plant a tree. And I’m like, what tree and where? What I want them to do is that they just like doing a mono forest because that’s a very bad idea.
Rina Faletti: We planted out. I’ve been talking to experts for four years, and we’ve got it all locked down. But that’s part of the art too, I have to say. I’m a landscape historian, also both physical topographical landscape, also landscape painting and landscape art. After four and a half years, I needed to be able to look. I am a visual person, I needed to be able to look out of all the windows of my house and not see a burn forest anymore. And finally, I’m able to see a landscape that looks healthier, and it’s better. I’ve continued to do these art exhibitions. I’m a guest curator in the Bay Area now for another fire exhibition. But now, the tenor of art exhibitions is changing. Everybody’s interested in looking at art so that they change. But people are now, it’s been four and a half years since our fire 2017, but it’s also been that many years that the whole world is now having to think globally about what climate change means, what environmental change means, and what how wildfire and water issues are connected to that. And so we’re looking at images and art much more now. You can search on the internet now what you could not do in 2017 and find plenty of exhibitions, artists, galleries, organizations, like your own who are really focused on wanting to integrate art and artistic methods and thinking into how we get through disasters and move beyond the initial trauma.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yes, there’s so much to that. I get a lot. I have a lot of colleagues across the United States in the space of disaster who are really big experts in wind and rain. And I hear universally over and over again, they say, yeah, I’m good with a tornado. Give me a tornado, give me a hurricane, but I have no desire to see a wall of flames. Like that scares me, the fire monster. And I think there is something particularly harrowing about wildfires, these mega fires, and what they produce. And so I’m so glad to hear that others are taking up that mantle as well. But part of how I introduce you is that, many people would consider you sort of the foremost expert though on how to how art could respond to a magnifier because you had to do it without, you took in all of your years of experience in your life experience, your personal experience, and put it all in service to curating this art show, and amplifying these artists, and helping them on their own journey, but also helping us as a community has to heal. So I’m very happy that you are the first person that I could think of that took up all that space.
Rina Faletti: Thank you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s a huge accomplishment.
Rina Faletti: I appreciate that. I do see it as an accomplishment. And also, yeah, really excellent for my own creativity, but also bringing it to the community. And that’s one other thing. If we have time to talk about it is just to emphasize the community aspect of what art does, and that there is a desperate need for community during and after a disaster. And it does not matter if your house burned down, or your forest burned down, or you had to evacuate. I heard people apologizing after the fires. Oh, I’m so sorry, we didn’t have to evacuate. It’s like, no, this affected every single person in the greater North Bay. And then one month after my exhibition opened, Paradise burned down. Three hours from here.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: To the day. To the day. November 8, 2018, to the day. And now, it must be so interesting because you are working at Chico, and Chico also had all these other secondary impacts because their population swelled by 30% overnight.
“Art helps us create community.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
Rina Faletti: Yeah, that we see that what we do is it helps us create community. And we’re talking about art on walls, but that’s also true with performance art, with music, with film. It helps us to share and bring community, and find creative ways to be what creatives in Napa County call second responders. So, first come in–
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I actually love that because I’ve always said that we’re a third responder.
Rina Faletti: But then the second response is immediate. Second response is that arts and culture has to be there to help, heal and educate, of course.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I had never thought about the role of art in a disaster ever until actually having gone through one. And I think that your point that you are making, and we’ll make again, is that a community is made up of people who lost everything and also people who didn’t lose anything. Everything from people who got to stay in their homes for that time to people who were evacuated. Everyone needs some degree of care and healing, and art is one of those things that is sort of unique and it can envelop both grief and hope at the same time. So can you talk about that?
“Every single person lost something and there are no apologies. Everyone’s loss is real and everyone’s loss is so deep and tragic.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
Rina Faletti: Yes, I can. I would actually change a little bit what you just said about people who lost something and people who didn’t lose something. It’s my experience that every single person lost something. So if I never had to evacuate my home, this is what I still had to do. My kids were home from school, they were scared out of their minds, was the fire gonna come to my house too? Are my friends safe? We didn’t know if our house was even standing for almost three weeks. And we were not the only ones. We were enveloped by smoke every single day. I mean, the day when the wind would shift a little bit, we would be scared to death. Here comes the wind again, but we can see the sky and we can breathe. We have worn masks during the pandemic everyday for two years. But before that, we don’t remember what it was like before that. The only time that I had to put a mask on in my life aside from when my mom was in the ICU 20 years ago for a few weeks was when the smoke was so thick that we could not see, we could not breathe. It was so awful. And then when you would look at, there was no color anywhere, and then you remember the sun was just this glowing. So I would say, and the reason I say it is, I say as a curator and as someone connected to the arts and humanities, as the voice that leads conversations through this darkness, that every single person lost something, and there’s no apologies. I was saying, people would apologize, oh, I’m so sorry, we didn’t have to be evacuated. What you went through was so much worse. Oh, I lost my forest. I didn’t lose my home. I’m so sorry. No, everyone’s loss is real, and everyone’s loss is so deep and tragic. Like everyone felt it at that level.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. There are degrees of loss, for sure. But it was so interesting. Because when you talked with, obviously, you’ve spoken with thousands at this point of fire survivors, and then they’ll say, well, I I lived like, I’m not, I didn’t die as a result of the fire, and that conversation goes all the way to the person of the family who’s, we lost 43 lives in that fire. Camp Fire lasts 85 people, and it’s a terrible way to go. And like my friend, Ruby, lost her grandparents in Napa, the very first night on Atlas Peak who were like 100 and 101. So her loss was immediate and profound, and no way did that family ever be like, they’re like, this is terrible. So there are degrees of loss. But I love that you’re pointing out that anyone who’s experienced it, until you do, you see Anderson Cooper on your sidewalks in front of burning houses, like it’s a hard thing to explain how bizarre that is, and people try to care for each other by minimizing their own loss.
Rina Faletti: I guess that’s right. And that’s the point that I’m trying to make. But in relation to looking at art together, it becomes such an amazing connector. We’re all connected by, I say it over and over. I might have said it earlier that when we’re standing, oh, and that’s the other thing that I want to say is what happens when you’re in an art gallery talking about the environmental crisis? Everyone’s positions fall away. I have a political position about climate change, everyone does. I don’t need to talk about what those positions are. But when we’re only talking about our positions, it can be extremely contentious.
“When we’ve just been through a disaster and we’re in an art museum looking at thoughtful, mindful, highly talented artists creating things for us to think about, we don’t stand looking at each other fighting about our ideas, we stand side to side.” -Rina Faletti, PhD
But when we’ve just been through a disaster, or we know that disasters are going on around us and we’re in an art museum looking at thoughtful, mindful, highly talented artists creating things for us to think about, we don’t stand looking at each other fighting about our ideas. We stand side to side, whether it’s sitting side to side, even six feet apart in a film, in a theater, or whether it’s in an art gallery or any other type of venue watching a performance even. Those positions fall away, and then we look at the image, and we talk about what’s in the image,and what were the artists thinking, and what have they been through? Oh, what’s the title of this work? Oh, look at the one over there, it kind of, and then we have a completely different way of being really able to relate to each other in the wake of disaster. And hopefully, I mean, I heard many, many hundreds of people say so. It allows us to talk with others who maybe we do or don’t disagree with, who we are alike or not alike because we have this common experience now. That’s your optimism speaking, and that’s my experience of what happens in front of a work of art in a situation like this one when we’re trying to recover from a disaster.
And it does teach us how to disaster because we have to, again, realize that we need to get out of that feeling of, oh, my gosh, the world is ending. Or that terrible feeling of loss and say, okay, there’s others around me who’ve lost also that’s helpful. Someone has made something creative out of this. There’s a sense of amazement standing in front of a work of art. Because if you’re not an artist, you’re just like, how did they even think of that? How did they do that? How were they able to create that? And there’s a sense of admiration there too for people, and a sense of guidance, and almost leadership for people like artists that I showed in the show who are able to do that in the moment after the loss occurs to them. And walking back and seeing the burned down house that morning, starting to write the book, going back to the ashes of what you used to own and immediately taking those pictures, going to your computer because you don’t have paints and canvases anymore because they just burned down and they’re disappeared, and finding a way to get a program that can digitally help you paint a picture, that’s a remarkable type of role modeling for recovery.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Alan, because he (inaudible) your show, you take your cable box, which is what’s behind me, and you turn that into a thing that says, fire exit, exit. That was his cable box. So we’re coming towards the last few minutes of the podcast and I want to ask two things of you. Number one, I know you wanted to mention the artists who were in your art, the Art Response Show, and I’d like to give you some room to do that. And then I’d also like to ask you, is there anything that I should have asked that I have not asked? We could talk for hours about this, but you really want to make sure to make it into the podcast. We can start with the names of the artists.
Rina Faletti: I’ve got them. So the names of the artists and you’ll find them on the website which documents this exhibition, www.art-responds.com. Julia Crane, an installation artist who did rubbings with ash after the fire on paper and took photographs. Oscar Aguilar Olea who did paintings as they were escaping, but also some amazing figural paintings after that memorialized fire. Andrea Dale collected ash from the fires and created resin abstract, resin paintings with the ash. Lowell Downey as a photographer who actually went up in airplanes and took aerial photography of the burned areas and then showed them. Brian Fies who made graphic illustrations into a graphic novel or what I call a graphic memoir about the fires and his own experience of losing his home. Jeff Frost who creates time lapse photography and multimedia sculpture who has followed fires since the early 2000s and does incredible photography and filmmaking.
The film he finished under my project is called California on Fire. You can look for it. It’s been winning awards around the globe in the past few years. Linda Gass, a textile artist who creates stitch paintings also known as quilts to those of us who don’t do that about topographical damage and fires made from maps. Edmund Ian Grant created paintings and prints on paper and created digital paintings that were critical of some of the processes and organizations that were slow to respond. Norma Quintana is a documentary photographer who’s the one who took her iPhone out and created photographs of every single object that she found in her burn home. And then Kristi Rene who is the person I mentioned who escaped from the fire with her life and her husband’s life and started creating digital paintings. The filmmakers were Kevin White and Stephen Most, excuse me, and Jeff Frost. And Mima Cataldo who has come in and also artists you just mentioned to help with some further exhibitions and programs.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: She’s a wonderful photographer. Wonderful.
Rina Faletti: Yeah, she’s fantastic. And others too. I mean, those were the ones who were in the exhibition that we’re talking about. But I’ve also done exhibitions since then and have more in planning. The Palo Alto Art Center will have a fire exhibition, and it goes on and on. What would we want you to know? I think the only other thing that I would mention is that we also did in my neighborhood an oral history project with volunteer firefighters who helped us and that’s on the website of the Mayacamas volunteer fire department. I can get you the website name. We recorded those. I interviewed all the firefighters, and then there were volunteers who also interviewed some of the residents who either lost their homes or didn’t. But the firefighters’ insights, when they get to sit down and talk about their experiences and their memories as people, not the ones in uniform who are doing what they have to do but talking about reflecting on what they had to do. And (inaudible), a work of art as well that I would encourage people to listen to those stories.
“Telling your fire story storytelling after a disaster is so important and should be almost automatic as a way to capture history, and also it’s very cathartic.” -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Telling your fire story, storytelling after a disaster is so important and should be almost automatic as a way to capture history, but also it’s very cathartic. And we’ve actually gotten that request from other fire affected communities like, yeah, can we have a coordinated storytelling so that we can share a fire story.
Rina Faletti: And we can talk about that, because I have some ideas and resources for that. It’s really important. So yeah, I think for the moment, that’s what comes to mind. And as you said, we have talked for hours, and we’ll continue, and I just encourage everyone to look around them and look online or anywhere and see what artists are doing in response to disaster everywhere and find some solace in that, and find some ways through it that perhaps we had not thought about before.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that because it’s sort of unflinching, it avoids magical thinking and it honors what was and what happened. And so Rina, I’m a big fan, always have been since the very first day that we met. I love your work. I think it’s very important. And I think that your message of how important it is, it’s going to become more and more relevant for people as we experience this sort of era of mega fires and climate induced disasters. And so I really want to thank you for taking some of your valuable time to share what you know and some of your lessons, and I do encourage people again to visit your website at art-responds.com. And reach out to us if you want to talk to Rina or you want some of these lessons, we’re always happy to share any of our guests and their contact information after we ask them to make sure it’s okay. But I just really want to thank you for being on the podcast today.
Rina Faletti: Thank you so much. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed speaking with you and to your listeners.