On Sept. 9, 2020, ominous red skies blanketed the Bay Area, a meteorological and chemical reaction to the smoke produced by nearly 30 California fires burning at the time. The skies had barely cleared, when 18 days later, residents of Sonoma County, long familiar with the effects of significant wildfires, were faced with the fast moving, voracious Glass Fire. This fire eventually burned over 67,000 acres, destroying nearly 1600 structures before being contained in late October 2020. Afterward, Sonoma native and artist Christa Grenawalt experienced a humble sense of relief that an unpredictable wind had shifted, causing the fire to narrowly spare her family home overlooking the Rincon Valley, even while everything in its path was destroyed.
Grenawalt, a painter who holds an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, has long been exploring her response to the natural environment through large scale works on canvas. Working outdoors in direct relationship to wind, water and weather, Grenawalt has built a contemplative practice taking into account the elemental particles that combine to create the matter surrounding us. By allowing the very atmosphere to impact her paintings, Grenawalt emphasizes the interconnectedness between the environment and human beings.
So it was not surprising that on the day in October 2020 when confronted with the charred remains of the plants and trees planted by her family throughout their 40 years on the property, Grenawalt’s first action was to unfurl a gigantic roll of canvas. A new series called “Fire Line” took form that day, with the combination of ash, gold, and plastic capturing the environmental disruption of the past few years.
In the series and in particular the painting, “Finding The Gold,” Grenewalt casts her memory back to a childhood spent roaming the hills surrounding her family’s home, looking for rattlesnakes and scorpions and knowing the oaks and grasses as thoroughly as the grapes and fruit trees growing in the family garden. Through this personal history, Grenawalt locates the difficult to find, but wholly necessary kernel of energy that promises regeneration after devastation. The resulting canvases contain the grit composed of the burned structures, flora and fauna of Sonoma, with all the deserving emotion such material commands. Her use of gold intermixed with the soot black ash prompts optimistic memories of why California came to be known as the Golden State; intentional use of acrylic resin preserves both the destruction and the promise of the land.
The scale of the work puts the viewer unavoidably into the environment, in much the same way the red skies of September 2020 did. Confronted with the reality, Grenawalt seems to be saying, we must find a way of healing; a way of allowing the land to speak when it can’t speak for itself. On the one year anniversary of the Glass Fire, Grenawalt’s work was installed at the ICB Building in Sausalito, where she has maintained a studio for the past decade. In what was a full circle moment for Grenawalt, her mother and father assisted with hanging the gigantic piece; an emotional “Oh Wow!” gasp escaped when they witnessed it on the gallery wall.
Grenawalt lives and works in Marin County. Learn more about Grenawalt and her work here and here. “Line of Fire” will be on view in Christa Grenawalt’s studio #266 at the ICB Building in the upcoming Winter Open Studios, Dec. 4 – 5 from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
(Photos courtesy of Christa Grenawalt unless otherwise noted.)