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Artist Daniel Merriam paints the reality of the Tubbs fire devastation

Sat, 30 Dec 2017 19:31:00
Article by:
Michael Orion Powell-Deschamps
Daniel Merriam sketching scenes of the burned acreage surrounding his destroyed home and other possessions. Photo by Brian Scofield, courtesy of Merriam's wife, Yulia.
Life is difficult for everyone. That is the best takeaway from Daniel Merriam, a brilliant artist and forerunner of the Bubble Street Gallery, who lost his Calistoga home in the 2017 Tubbs Fire — one of the five deadliest in California’s history. Along with Merriam’s home, hundreds of other homes were destroyed. According to narration in a video directed by amateur filmmaker Brian Scofield about Merriam’s place in the Tubbs fire, the disaster did not discriminate — the wildfire had “no opinions on race, religion, age or socio-economics.” Anyone who was in the vicinity or had property, rented or owned, in the area was devastated.
    
While we all heard the initial reports of devastation of the Tubbs fire, and while San Francisco, Berkeley and other cities experienced the dust and debris from the fires, reports since the dust has settled truly express the devastation experienced. The fire destroyed 4,658 homes and burned 36,432 acres. The material losses in Sonoma and Napa counties have exceeded $2.8 billion. Firefighters from Berkeley, Oakland, and other neighboring cities had to be called in — all at great physical risk.
    
Speaking in front of a camera on his barren property, Merriam’s eyes filled with tears as he recognized how the work and toil he had put into building his home abruptly became in vain. “Sunday night, the night of the fire, I was sitting on a porch right here doing a painting and finishing up a painting. I left here at dark with no idea of what was coming over that hill,” he said, before adding, “It’s amazing how you can work so long on a dream and put so many hours in to it and in five or ten minutes, it’s gone. The journey’s not over. I thought that I had accomplished something here but I learned something. It’s pretty hard to take.” As he mourned the losses on his own land, Merriam pointed toward the neighboring fields, pointing out how they were still “pristine,” despite all the human destruction.
    
In the video, Merriam had set up paper on an easel and broke up pieces of burnt bark and tree roots and started to draw with these materials. The intention of the project was to show that something could be built from devastating situations. The goal “is to reinstill culture and create birth, create the impetus that brings people’s heart and soul back to recovery,” he said. “It needs to be done before it’s forgotten, before the victims are forgotten, and they will be forgotten. They’re remembered on the surface, but it’s just human nature to address it in the first week or so and then to move on to other things — but the pain and the reality of the difficulties that thousands of people have endured will go on for many years.”
    
Merriam added that the loss of five structures and seven acres of land was devastating, but it was not enough to permanently put up an impediment to his art career. “I am fortunate that it’s not my only home,” he said. “So it’s painful, but for me, I think the recovery will be much easier in that, because I have a stronger foothold in other aspects of my life, I can offer more moral support to people. So that’s the journey. You’ve got to have a purpose in order to be an artist, right?”
    
There certainly will be people who will still need moral support.
    
A place in the process of rebuilding could be the perfect fit for Merriam. While his process of expression naturally took on a more creative angle, as he became known throughout the world for paintings that incorporated “dreamscapes” similar to something from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, his eye for design was set in place by his father — who was creative, but had more of an engineering mindset. “My father had this ability to remember equations upon equations, so he didn’t have a normal level of distraction. He could really focus and retain these, so I could really work with imagery and geometry and perspective, without inhibition or full retention of those faculties. [He] looked at things more mechanically rather than romantically,” Merriam said, adding, “The engineering side is sort of a practical application. Since it’s related to perceiving things and making things with your hands, it was a bit in our family DNA.”
    
Despite the knack for design that is part of his heritage, the work that Merriam put together using the remains of his home stands out in simplicity from his more polished, regular art. “I wanted these to be very crude and demonstrate the actual value of the experience — the raw, real experience of what this fire meant, what it meant to me when my studio burned,” he said. “Going back to it is to address reality and in my own voice and in my own way of understanding ways was to go down and pick up the pieces and turn them in to something.”

 
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