As I write this, California is in the grips of several devastating wild fires, including the Camp Fire, which is now the worst in the state’s history. Many lives have been lost, homes and businesses have been destroyed, and the landscape has been decimated and scarred. Survivors, many having endured harrowing escapes, are struggling to meet their basic needs and find a way forward toward recovery.
In times like this, it is important for everyone who is able to help in whatever capacity they can: fundraising and making donations; volunteering time, skilled labor, and supplies; and helping people to process their grief and loss. It can be easy to think that what we do as artists on an individual scale doesn’t make a difference or help those suffering after a disaster.
When I found my thoughts veering this way as I read the worsening news about the fires, I reminded myself of Gregory Roberts’ Sonoma Ash Project—which I learned about earlier this year, and which he discusses in this issue—as an example of how artists can, indeed, help individuals and a community cope with losses like this.
Roberts created the project in the aftermath of the 2017 Tubbs Fire that destroyed swaths of Napa, Sonoma, and Lake Counties in California, including sections of the city of Santa Rosa, where he lives. He invited residents of the surrounding areas to share ashes collected from their destroyed homes with him. He then cataloged, sifted, and incorporated each home’s ash into the glaze on a porcelain jar made for the resident who once lived there. The lidded jars’ design is based on a historic round barn that was also lost in the fire. The jars are meant to serve as a shared commemoration and acknowledgement of what was lost, meaningful objects created out of what the fire left behind, and conduits connecting a now dispersed community through organized events where all who were affected and interested could gather.
The Sonoma Ash Project took shape while Roberts was processing his own emotions and thinking about the way that fire renders order into disorder. He asked himself whether, and how, the sensation of loss could be mitigated in service of recovery. His solution to this problem was working with participants to transform the disordered remnants of a destructive event into creative objects infused with memory and hope.
Roberts’ response, finding probing questions to ask himself, then coming up with possible solutions, is a skill artists use widely to cultivate creativity, which is the focus of this issue. A similar question-focused method can also be found in provotyping and problem finding, a discovery process meant to provoke questions to help challenge expectations that A. Blair Clemo uses extensively in his own studio and teaching practices.
The thread of artists finding ways to stoke their creativity and that of their communities continues throughout this issue. Strategies include setting parameters to work within as well as mining past experiences and the powerful pull of nostalgia, as Neil Forrest and Kimberly Chapman do. For artists still developing their own style, reflecting on what they want to accomplish as a way to move beyond experimentation toward making work with intention has proven effective for the potters studying in the Advanced Studies Program at The Village Potters Clay Center. For adult students new to clay, the freedom to explore the material’s potential leads to active hands, minds, and community, as discussed by Ronnie and Peggy Avants in this issue’s Spotlight.
Read on to find out what these artists discovered when they asked “What if . . . ?” and to find inspiration for expanding your own creative possibilities. What you discover may reinvigorate your practice and potentially help others at the same time.