It has been over a year since the devastating fires in Santa Rosa wiped out lives, homes, businesses, wildlife, forests, and many dreams. For a while, I thought the county would eventually calm, rebuild, and move into a new future, but then it all happened again with the Camp Fire (and many others) that scarred California border to border. Any thoughts I had about putting away my ash-based paints that I used for landscapes were set aside. We were healing all over again. Even before the trauma of the Tubbs Fire was dealt with, we were feeling our thin sense of security ebbing away.
As a therapist, I counsel many clients who have lost everything. Their stories break my heart. Not only have they lost their homes, jobs, pets, treasures, and the necessities of living, they have lost a sense of safety, the number one element in a person’s self-esteem.
Some were given enough in settlements to start over; some people fell through the cracks. They didn’t lose their home, as many in Journey’s End Mobile Home Park did, but they couldn’t live in the homes that remained standing without power and water. Yet insurance companies have stalled, and they are trapped in the frustration of having to move ahead without the means to do so.
What do we do with the ultimate frustration? The block that cannot be removed? The knot no sword can divide?
In his article on “Dealing with Despair: Dark Moments of the Soul”, Michael Woodward retells the story of Florence Chadwick, a famous long-distance swimmer. Close to finishing her swim from Catalina to California’s coast, fog moved in. It was too thick for her to imagine her goal. She couldn’t see ahead nor could she see the boat that followed close behind, and she gave up. She was a half mile from her destination. The fog had shattered her confidence.
Two months later, on a clear day, she could see the coast and set a record time for the swim. And now many in our own community are in the “fog”. Is it the fear of fire? The next dry season? The loss of ‘everything” that brings people to despair? I believe it is the uncertainty, like Florence Chadwick, the loss of hope that things can return to some kind of normal. They need reassurance even when they cannot believe or even imagine restoration.
Art speaks to that need. When we act creatively, either as a victim of destruction or an onlooker who feels compassion but cannot think of how to communicate it to others, art can fill that emptiness.
We show our love of humanity, of beauty, of emotion through our paintings, writings, music, … all forms of art. We reach out to others, especially at times like these. We share our thoughts, feelings and emotions. The observer feels it. Art is beyond words but very real. And very healing. British physicians are encouraging depressed patients to take dance and music lessons rather than merely pop Prozac. in Hull, England, physicians encouraged patients who had suffered strokes to play instruments, conduct and perform; 90 percent of these participants reported improvements in their physical and mental health.
The Santa Rosa Arts Center 312 South A Street in Santa Rosa, had a dynamic show after the Santa Rosa Fires and a followup show that spoke to recovery….The art was powerful and moving. People came in quietly, gazing at the works that covered images and creations of the shattered landscape and how the artists reacted to our communal losses. We as artists hope it helped to heal individuals and our collective grief.
Unfortunately, we have had more tragedy. Now, the center has another show: “Healing the Environment”. February 1st to March 22, 2019. The artworks “reflective our relationship to the environment and to our planet in this time of ecological crisis”. Feel the power of healing art.
“Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air…but only for one second without hope.”
The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares. Mark Twain
As I read the words of Mark Twain, I realized art, in its many forms, can also be the friend who cares; the friend we can turn to either in our own minds or the minds and hearts of other artists.
We have all experienced change in the last few months. We have felt
ourselves tested. Some of us have had our lives radically altered, and all
of us are dealing with the fires outcome. Art reaches out in a powerful
way to express what change does to one. Looking back at the landscapes we
have enjoyed, we can remember a peace we may not have fully appreciated.
By painting it out, letting others see a place and a time we loved or were
impacted by fills some of the longing for what is lost.
It has been over 7 months since the October wildfires ravaged Northern
California, but many of us still jump at the sound of sirens
day and night during the days of the fires. We smell oak leaves burning,
and instead of enjoying the scent as we used to, we shudder and are
momentarily back in the thick haze of October 2017. The sky becomes red,
the air is unbreathable, our hearts race. Our healing is not complete. We
still need the friend who cares.
But healing is not done like a slide downhill to the green grass at the
bottom. It is done in small, uneven steps. Some are slower and more
difficult than others. It is not an easy path, but some of the steps are
being taken. And although there are many internet pages on what areas are
cleared to build on, where houses and businesses are being planned, how to
get through the maze of organizations, government offices, attorneys, and
inspectors, the process leaves those who have lost everything frustrated,
impatient, angry, and feeling hopeless. They wonder if they will ever
again have a place to call home. And it leaves the onlookers who hurt for
them wondering how to help.
That is when we, as artists, can be the friend who stays and cares.
First, our art helps our own spirit begin to recover from the pain we have
all experienced, then, as we gain strength, hope, and relief, we can
express our understanding to others who badly need a moment or two of
understanding, connection, and support.
I believe, we as artists, reach out with images, with feelings and with
sensations that help us overcome challenges. The viewer sees the emotional
impact, the growth or change, and both can be healed.
Jain Pollock Fairfax
The artist Kandinsky said, “Color hides a power still unknown but real, which acts on every part of the human body.”
Following the fires that brought numerous fatalities and ruin to thousands
of homes and businesses in Northern California, many artists throughout
the area turned to painting and photography, sculpture and poetry to
relieve some of the suffering they experienced either by losing all they
had or by knowing those who did. Throughout the area, like the toxic smoke
that hung over the area for weeks, there has been a palpable sense of
The first art show at the Santa Rosa Arts Center, “Healing by Art: After
the Fires”, brought out many feelings from local artists: Sadness, grief,
anger, confusion, but also hopefulness.
Mysterious and mythic works made the large crowd on opening night whisper
and wonder at the scope of the impact the fires had on our community. By
the entrance, an assemblage of burned wood and melted plastic had the look
of a heart-broken relic, but inside the gallery, high over the photos and
paintings of things lost and places damaged, hung a large heart-shaped
collage that gave the room a sense of healing and positive energy. A quilt
with a heart at the center hung on the wall, warm and inviting. An open
suitcase with pencil and paper inside let people leave memories of
feelings and reactions.
It has been known for years that art and music put a person in a different
brain wave pattern. The arts affect a person’s autonomic nervous system,
hormonal balance, immune system, and brain neurotransmitters in positive
ways. So, in other words, art heals.
When listening to music or observing art, every cell in the human body
benefits. There are changes to blood flow to all the organs. Perception
of the world brightens along with an increased sense of hope. Research
shows people engaged in creating or observing art find relief from pain
caused by stress. Sadness and depression are lessened.
Artists know the delight they feel when struck with a creative idea. They
turn their attention inward and become distracted from the world outside
their creative mind. They may be expressing grief and loss, but the
process of doing so lends a sense of relief. Like crying, painting and
drawing, dance, music, and poetry give the artist and the art observer
expression and greater understanding of the depth of their pain.
Putting a traumatic event on canvas or paper often produces a sense of
control. Distressing emotions flow out in the open where one can observe
and deal with them. They are no longer hidden; perhaps blocking recovery.
I was fortunate enough to have an artist friend who is also a psychiatrist
attend the show. I asked him what he saw in the paintings. And his
impression, one, he admitted, was his own interpretation, was of depth of
thought, belief in the positive and the desire to heal, to overcome, to
make whole again. Going from painting to painting, he offered
interpretations of what the artist might be trying to express. He pointed
out the light in the distance of a small piece that showed a meadow
unaffected by the heat of the fire. “There it is!,” he said, “Belief in
“The main thing (in creating art) is to be moved, to love, to hope, to
tremble, to live.” ~ Auguste Rodin
Jain Pollock Fairfax, Psy.D. 4/17/2018
Chroma Gallery transforming into Santa Rosa Arts Center; article in the North Bay Bohemian
Local radio station, KRCB 91FM interviewed Simmon, Jain Sibert and Barbara Goodmen about the Healing By Art exhibit currently at Chroma Gallery, sponsored by Santa Rosa Arts Center. It aired a few times during Morning Addition and All Things Considered on March 6 and here is a link to it.
Healing by Art: After the Fires February – March, 2018
[spacer height=”-20px”]Heart by Teresa Camozzi