When the Tubbs Fire decimated his community in 2017, Gregory Roberts developed a project that used his skills as a ceramic artist to help survivors of the fire cope with their loss.
The ash reminded me of the first snow flurries of late fall outside my childhood kitchen window in New England, a signal that change was imminent. However, this change was not seasonal. Homes went up in flames. The loss of a family’s kitchen is the loss of its space to cook, bicker about doing the dishes, make a mess, and clean it up. Without these spaces, we can drift into a dark vacuum where a sense of community fractures and dissolves. The fear of lost memory was bitter in the thick air last October during the Tubbs Fire of 2017.
By 10 AM on the second day of the Tubbs Fire, preparing by raking debris and jury-rigging a DIY sprinkler system on the roof of my house was done, and the university where I teach, Sonoma State University, was closed for the fourth time in its history. Rumors of colleagues losing homes, including our university president, were beginning to filter through the phone tree. The disorder of entropy is a universal constant that can be sped up by heat. To arrest these thoughts, I wondered, if entropy is demonstrated to willing people who lost their homes in the fire, could the sensation of loss be mitigated in service of recovery?
On the 12th day of the Tubbs Fire, I put out my first call for ashes from homes lost in the fire to use in a project aimed at helping people heal. This first attempt involved the university, but after careful consideration and advisement, it was deemed too risky for the institution to take on. Agreeing with the university’s decision, the project, which I named the Sonoma Ash Project, returned to my home in Santa Rosa, California.
Hope for Closure and Reconnection
The Sonoma Ash Project is a profoundly intimate experience for the participants and myself because the individuals involved need something that institutions can’t offer—the hope of closure and reconnection. Participants would go to their property to gather ashes. Finding their way using the map of their charred home’s foundation, they would pick up the ashes that were once bookcases that held a father’s naval journals or a bedroom where a child had grown up.
The ashes—collected in plastic bags, Tupperware, and Mason jars—were driven to my house and dropped off on my front porch in a bin marked “Sonoma Ash Project.” Each day when I would come home from work, I collected them and brought the samples inside to be entered into a database. Hurried notes would sometimes be attached to the containers of ash telling me about the 40 years a couple had spent in the home that was now gone. By November, 95 ash samples were delivered. In December 2017, a deadline was suggested and ignored by the community. To date, 150 ash samples have been dropped off, with the most recent arriving in September 2018.
I decided to incorporate the ash into the glazing of vessels I made for each participant. Wood ash drifts onto clay pots during a wood firing, melting the silica on the surface. The two elements flow into one another, combining to create glass, transforming into a new material.
The process speaks to the experiences of the people displaced by the fire. New homes are raised on old plots of land for some families, while others move to new parts of the county, and some still can’t decide what to do.
Steps to create the lidded vessels for the Sonoma Ash Project: 1. Wheel throw the base vessel using 6 pounds of porcelain. 2. Throw the lid on the wheel using 3½ to 4 pounds of porcelain. 3. Bisque fire the vessel to 1950°F (1066°C). 4. Prepare glaze for 130 participants’ vessels: mix 40,000-gram batch each of cone 10 oxblood and tenmoku glazes. 5. Wash bisque-fired vessels and lids to remove dust. 6. In a separate large bowl, dilute some of the oxblood glaze by 25% with water. 7. Measure 50 ml of the diluted oxblood glaze into a clean mixing cup. 8. Add 2 ½ tablespoons of ash to the glaze and mix until smooth. 9. Using a round form (like a biscuit or cookie cutter) to maintain its shape, pour some of the glaze and ash mixture into the middle of the vessel. Allow the water to seep in for one minute and remove the form (this should create a ¼-inch-thick patty). 10. When the patty is completely dry, pour undiluted oxblood glaze into the inside, then dip the outside of the vessel into the same glaze. 11. Glaze the lid separately with tenmoku. 12. Fire to 2350°F (1288°C) in a reduction atmosphere, then allow the kiln to cool for 72 hours.
The vessels are based on the Fountaingrove Round Barn, which was chosen for its iconic place in Santa Rosa’s collective mind and itself was destroyed in the Tubbs Fire. Built in 1899, the Round Barn was designed by and dedicated to Kanaye Nagasawa, and built by contractor John Clark Lindsay, later becoming a landmark. Nagasawa experienced displacement throughout his life. At age 13, he was one of 15 Samurai Satsuma students smuggled out of Japan and sent to the UK in 1863 to learn Western customs, technology, and systems. He was the first Japanese student at Cornell University, and the first Japanese national to live permanently in the US. He migrated west and lived in the Santa Rosa utopian community of Fountaingrove, which was started by the Brotherhood of the New Life. He was integral to the property for the rest of his life, but as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the 1913 Anti-Alien Law, he could not own property in California or pass on his life’s work on to his heirs. In 1982, Ronald Reagan acknowledged his legacy in a Presidential Address. Nagasawa’s ashes now rest in his home town and Santa Rosa’s sister city, Kagoshima, Japan. From Samurai to being well known as “The Wine King of California,” Nagasawa’s legacy is strong in Santa Rosa. In 2007, a 33-acre park was named in his honor.
The Process to the Opening
The Sonoma Ash Project held a dinner for participants in June 2018 and open houses through the summer months. Volunteer days (to help with organizing ash samples, labeling, glazing, and transportation) were arranged to help push the project along to meet the hard deadline of October 6, 2018, the opening day of “From the Fire; a Community Reflects and Rebuilds” at the Museum of Sonoma County (MSC). As the project outgrew museum director Jeff Nathanson’s original vision, the Sonoma Ash Project was shown in its entirety at MSC and a portion was selected to move onto the Sonoma Valley Museum following the original exhibition. At the conclusion of both exhibitions in January, a ceremony will be held to give each participant the vessel that incorporated the ashes from their former home for their new home.
the author Gregory Roberts graduated from Alfred University and was the first artist to utilize honeycomb ceramics. This body of work was first shown at Dorothy Weiss Gallery in San Francisco in 1992. He has been on the faculty at Sonoma State University since 2001, where he has served as chair of the Department of Art and Art History from 2010–2013 and 2016–2018. Learn more about his work at http://www.studioc2.squarespace.com.
Post script: Fire continues to be a fact of Californians’ lives and Roberts’ work on the Sonoma Ash Project will continue, but in a new form. He is creating a template for potters who would like to participate. See his web page for more information.