Interviews

After the Northern California Wildfires, an Artist Pieces Together a Life

A photographer lost her home and studio in the Atlas fire; now she is taking stock of the future and making work with remnants she salvaged from the ashes.

Norma I. Quintana, “Forage No. 4” from the Forage From Fire series (all photos courtesy of the artist, copyright Norma I. Quintana)

Recently wildfires have ravaged the Napa Valley in northern California. To convey how these fires have affected the arts community there, Charles Desmarais, a critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, related the accounts of a few artists who lost their homes and studios to the fires. I spoke in-depth with one of them, Norma Quintana, who told me that the Atlas Fire took both her home and studio. We discussed sorting out how to deal with such a devastating loss, and what she imagines she will do next.

Seph Rodney: I wanted to chat with you about how you’re dealing with the aftermath of the wildfire that took your home and studio. Before we get into exactly what happened, I would like to give our readers some background. You’re a photography artist, right?

Norma Quintana: Exactly. I started exhibiting in 2000. I’m not formally trained. I have a Masters in Juvenile Justice Administration, actually, from the School of Social Sciences [the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University]. I decided to pursue photography because it was a great vehicle for expression. I pretty much knew immediately that I was going to be a documentarian. I took some classes and experimented, but what really spoke to me was documentary work. I just started doing that.

SR: Where exactly was your house and studio?

NQ: We live in Napa, California, which is where the fire, as I understand, started; it’s called the Atlas Fire. My home was actually in a country club environment, within the country club there are homes and my home was there. My studio was in my home.

SR: You had another room?

Cover photo of Norma I. Quintana’s Circus: A Traveling Life

NQ: Exactly. I didn’t do commercial work. I did work like the Circus series [Circus: A Traveling Life] and then I had exhibitions. I’ve taught. I’ve had residencies, and then a book, and then I started this other series called, Forget Me Not. Again, using my Hasselblad and black-and-white film — not digital at all. [Now I have] to use what I have, which is my iPhone, which is totally opposite of the way I shoot, but it’s what I have.

Pre-fire I would spend a significant amount of time developing relationships or doing research, and then I would photograph. This was different, it was almost like an out-of-body experience. I immediately found myself documenting with what I had, which was this phone that I use to do little photographs and memories of friends, and what people do with the iPhone, but I took that leap.

SR: So you’re saying post-fire you did a kind of documentary project with your iPhone?

NQ: Yes. I found myself rummaging through what was left, which was really nothing, but through the ashes I’d find remnants — which is that series that people seem to respond to, Forage From Fire. You should look at this article KQED Arts just put out today.

Norma I. Quintana, “Forage No. 6” from the Forage From Fire series

SR: I read Charles’s article. He said that you were at home with your family and you saw an orange glow on the horizon and then not too long after you heard a knock on the door from the neighborhood police saying that you needed to evacuate.

NQ: We were at the house, we had just seen 60 Minutes, we were just hanging out, everybody was in bed. I heard from a friend after three calls; I went to look and I didn’t see anything. Then I went behind my house, which ironically is a fire road, and kept looking and then I saw the glow, still not thinking that fire was ever going to touch my house. Never did I think that was going to happen, never. I’ve been there for 28 years.

The police came because I think they started to see that was coming down in our direction, but we didn’t have a sense of that or warning. They weren’t going to leave until we did. I’m still not thinking the house is going to burn; I couldn’t negotiate — because I’m so visual — that the home I lived in, my photos, my art books, that everything would be gone; I couldn’t negotiate that in my head.

SR: When you had to leave, what did you end up taking, and how did you decide to take those things?

NQ: I was slightly annoyed, I was like, okay, why do we all have to leave? There’s a fire in the hills, but not a fire in the neighborhood. They didn’t tell you anything; they just said, “get out.” We basically had five minutes because they were waiting for us and they said they [would] not leave until we left.

I grabbed my phone, my laptop. We took our passports. I don’t have things like jewels and diamonds [but] I don’t think I could choose from everything that is in my home, because I have prints, collections and vintage cameras and text files. I had so many things. As I [was] leaving the house I took my car; then I went into my studio space and I can’t … what do you take? I don’t know why, but I got my Hasselblad. Then I took only two photographs, they were of my mother in Puerto Rico and they were studio shots and I just took them, I think it’s because I wanted her presence.

[We] left. We didn’t sleep very much in [my husband’s office] you can imagine. The next morning we get this message and … I’m like, what do you mean it’s gone? It was really very shocking.

Norma I. Quintana, “Forage No. 3” from the Forage From Fire series

SR: I imagine there is space in your car trunk and you don’t think of taking anything else?

NQ: No. Imagine someone saying, “You need to evacuate now; we’re not going to leave.” And then I have a little girl who’s 13, an elderly mother-in-law who I think had taken her sleeping pill, so she was kind of dragging. Then I had my son and my husband. So there was like five of us trying to leave. I think what happened is they decided to not save houses, but knock on doors and get people out. I felt like it was the wild, wild west.

Then two or three days later you got the National Guard, thousands of firefighters. That’s when they started to allow them to burn and control, then evacuate the towns, and it was really surreal.

SR: So, how are you dealing with where you are now?

NQ: As an artist and a documentarian I was a huge collector. I love vintage things. Everybody does come up to me, and they’re like “Oh, my God, your house, it’s like a museum; oh, your cameras, your butterflies …” And I [had] prints: Sally Mann, Mary Ellen Mark. When I showed work, I [would] buy work. It just disappeared. It just disappeared. So the first week I was pretty numb, but functioning, and then the second week is when it really hit me and I started to mourn the loss, just loss, it wasn’t the things, it was loss.

SR: I’m not sure I understand the difference. You’re saying you’re mourning and it’s just loss; it’s not the things. What’s the difference?

Photograph of the artist Norma I. Quintana

NQ: Well, oddly enough, this is what this journey is revealing to me. I compare it to curating: As a curator you get to see the work; [spend] time with it, but at the end of the day it goes, right? I saw myself being a curator of curiosities, of things that I found interesting that had history, that had some meaning and then I placed them in my home. I was kind of known for taking and making installations to my home. Like for example, my powder room was a chapel. So that chapel had Virgin Marys and busts of Saints and holy water and this kind of wild room. Then I had an apothecary a Chinese apothecary and on that I put anything Chinese. So I had many different worlds.

I don’t know, maybe because I’m Puerto Rican, I’m married to a South American, one of my children is from China, and my other two children were born in Santiago, Chile. That’s the way I have survived: they were things, they were beautiful things. I had the ability to curate them in my house and then they’re gone.

SR: So it’s as if you’ve made peace with them being temporary in your life?

NQ: Yes. Exactly. And you asked me how am I doing; now I’m at a place of peace and renewal. That’s where I’m at now, third week in.

SR: What are the prospects for you and your family of getting back to a place that you can call home?

Norma I. Quintana, “Tray No. 1” from the Trays of Combustion series

NQ: We’re fortunate we have private insurance [and] we are surrounded by an incredible community, so we have support in terms of housing. The other thing [is] I think I have the belief that I’m going to recreate what I had. My loss really was about a sense of home so when I would cry I would cry about that, home, security, a place of memories and it was gone.

SR: Do you find that being with your family makes that sense of loss more poignant or alleviates that for you?

NQ: I think both. I think yes, family and my husband who is the love of my life, I’ve been with him since we’ve been 18 years old — that’s pretty strong. I don’t know. It’s because I’m an immigrant, daughter of an immigrant — they’re from Puerto Rico and I know what it’s like to not have anything. I often would just open my eyes in my home and be thankful, I really can say that honestly. So then this work came up, this Forage From Fire, which is so different, but it seems to be moving a lot of people.

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