Fire and Water

Rina Faletti ’81 used her background as an environmental historian and art curator to help her neighborhood heal after the 2017 Napa fires.

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After spending much of her professional life exploring the role water plays in her home state, art curator Rina Faletti ’81 comes up against its polar opposite in the Wine Country fires.

By Rachel Leibrock, MFA ’04

RINA FALETTI ’81 sat in a cramped hotel room, distraught and afraid. It was October 2017 and, miles away, her family’s newly built house stood directly in the path of a firestorm.

Just two days earlier, Faletti had evacuated, along with her husband and daughter, forced out by the deadly Wine Country wildfires.

It would be days before they learned the fate of their home, perched in the Mayacamas Mountains above Glen Ellen, about 20 miles northwest of Napa. But Faletti already had an idea, one that would pull her through months of uncertainty and rebuilding.

As an art curator and environmental historian, Faletti has studied California’s waterworks infrastructure for years, curating exhibits that document the effects of humankind on the state’s geography and climate change. The Wine Country wildfires, however, shifted her focus from one of nature’s elements to another—and helped her bring together the local creative community.

A year after that terrifying moment, Faletti paused before a wall in a temporary Napa art gallery and pointed to a series of graphic illustrations that, in part, are a realization of her idea. Starkly rendered, some of the images are black and white, others full color. In one, people watch as flames roar in the distant hills. In another, a family escapes as wildfire threatens to consume their home; yet another highlights one man’s grim realization that everything’s gone. “There’s nothing left,” he says, a bewildered sense of loss on his face.

The illustrations, excerpted from Brian Fies’s just-released graphic novel, A Fire Story, document the immediacy of the Wine Country fires and their devastating aftermath.

“If you get up close, you’ll see Brian telling the story in his own way but also in way that includes us and allows us to feel,” Faletti said, addressing the group that gathered with her on a chilly Sunday evening at the pop-up gallery space.

The illustrations were part of Art Responds: The Wine Country Fires, an 11-artist exhibition that debuted nearly a year to the day after a series of wildfires tore through large swaths of Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Butte, and Solano Counties. The fires burned more than 200,000 acres, destroyed thousands of homes, and killed more than 40 people.

Faletti conceived of Art Responds in that hotel room just days after the fires broke out. Breathtaking in scope, the finished collection included impressive large-scale installations, stunning time-lapse photography, and intimate portrayals of things found adrift in the ashes. Each piece represented a particular experience and point of view; collectively, the whole spoke to an effort to face the fire’s destruction and aftermath.

“You don’t have to feel the flames, but you sure feel what happened.”

Rina Faletti ’81

The exhibition also included photographs submitted by the public, each depicting various levels of loss and destruction, as well as two films that framed the fire’s story in distinct ways. Kevin White and Stephen Most’s Wilder Than Wild: Fire, Forests and the Future trained a documentary lens on the 2013 Rim Fire that burned through Stanislaus National Forest, as well as the Wine Country fires, using both to address bigger issues about climate change, fire suppression, science, and indigenous traditions.

Correspondingly, Jeff Frost’s California on Fire assembled 500,000 still photographs to move the viewer through a time-lapse art piece that chronicled the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

For Faletti, the works displayed in Art Responds represent those stages, whether they visually position the viewer directly in the flames or their aftermath. “You don’t have to feel the flames, but you sure feel what happened,” she said about the pieces. “That’s what it is: it’s being in it, and [the artists] did that in an amazing, very kinesthetic, visceral, and emotional way.”

For Faletti the exhibition is, of course, deeply personal. After she and her husband, David Huang, and their 9-year-old daughter, Xochi Huang-Faletti, evacuated, she plummeted into a state of depression. “It was almost a feeling of ‘I can’t do anything. I have no control over this,’” she said.

She and her family finally made it back up the mountain where they found their house miraculously intact. Still, the trees, land, and utilities around their property were so damaged that they’d spend seven months living in a hotel.

That’s where Faletti first started working on Art Responds. Her journey to the exhibit, however, goes back much further—decades, in fact.

Springs and Streams

As a child growing up in San Jose and Reedley, a small California town along the Kings River just outside of Fresno, Faletti spent summers on long road trips in a station wagon with her parents, taking in the state’s vast landscapes. “My childhood was informed by seeing the results of the post-Depression era big New Deal waterworks systems,” she said.

Faletti remembers a sense of wonder upon visiting such structures. One trip to the San Luis Dam, in Merced County, left a particularly strong impression. “It’s just ingrained in my brain, seeing these teensy, little ant-sized yellow giant tractors on this dam face and looking so small,” she said. “I was overwhelmed by the scale of landscape.”

Faletti’s parents also instilled in her a respect for nature. There were hikes along the John Muir Trail, which meanders through the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and trips to a Central Valley campground, where her grandparents leased a spot. During these journeys, Faletti forged an interest in all things water, particularly watersheds—areas or ridges of land that separate waters flowing to various rivers, basins, and oceans.

“Not only did I see it—the water impounded and collected and distributed at the Central Valley level, and sea level—but I was also seeing the dams built in the late 19th century, early 20th century,” she said. “I was informed by the watershed and its use from a very young age. Water was just always there in my life and on the ground.”

Ultimately, this keen interest in the state’s water systems defined Faletti’s academic and professional work, although it would take years to realize it. She majored in English at Mills and remembers her experience there as a rich “humanities education,” taking classes across a diverse spectrum. Art, however, wasn’t part of her chosen curriculum.

Although she loved the subject and others encouraged her to take related classes, Faletti says she shied away from it because it didn’t fit into her professional path.

“I kept coming to [my dissertation advisers] with all these super awesome, art historical projects—I had a whole thing on Picasso’s female figures,” she said. “They’d say, ‘Yes, it’s a great project, but it’s not really you.’”

Instead, they nudged her in another direction.

“My adviser said to me, ‘Where’s the water?’ and I said, ‘What are you talking about?’” she recalled.

As it turned out, water already flowed everywhere in Faletti’s body of academic papers: ancient Roman aqueducts, water imagery in ancient pictograph manuscripts, an examination of Renaissance fountains.

Her resulting dissertation, “Undercurrents of Urban Modernism: Water, Architecture, and Landscape in California and the American West,” set the groundwork for her next chapter, a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at the Center for Humanities at the University of California, Merced, where she taught faculty and students how to use visual exhibitions to instruct on interdisciplinary issues related to water and the environment in the state.

It’s this role, Faletti said, that finally connected her love of art with her interest in the environment. It also established her position as an “environmental humanist,” with a mission to approach the impact of climate change with an eye toward anthropology, urban studies, and fine art. “All of those things help us find a common language,” she said.

Instead, after graduation Faletti taught high school English for 10 years. She enjoyed the classroom experience but decided to follow a different calling and enrolled in an art history program at the University of Texas at Austin.

She didn’t know it at first, but eventually that early love for California’s watersheds would ultimately shape Faletti’s master’s degree, PhD, and curatorial work.

She can laugh about it now, but those days of intellectual struggling initially

Faletti followed her fellowship, which ended in summer 2017, with a new role at UC Merced as a project researcher in the university’s Global Arts Studies program. It was around this time, too, that she started working on an exhibit on California’s watersheds. The Wine Country fires, however, changed her focus.

The River Bed

Back in that hotel room, Faletti soon connected her watershed research to the more pressing issue in front of her. Suddenly, the exhibition she’d envisioned on 1950s-era waterworks constructions and other large bodies of water no longer resonated quite so strongly.

Instead, she turned to a friend. Linda Gass, a Bay Area textile and glass artist, had already crafted Reclamation, a vibrant silk textile. The piece, simple yet evocative with carefully stitched waves of purple land and bursting orange flames, reinforced Faletti’s thoughts on climate change and helped shift the direction of her exhibit.

“We’re so darned fearful of fire in California—not just for the obvious reasons, but because it’s seriously threatening the watershed,” Faletti said. Drought, erosion, and the resulting damages to landscape and flora are central ways we interpret what’s happening with water, she explained, and they’re integrally part of our conversations on fire.

Though she said her expertise on the relationship between watersheds and fire might be unique, she also knew others would likely be interested.

“If it hit me like a flash of lightning, then the dots are going to connect for everybody else at some point too,” she said. Olivia Dodd, then-president and CEO of the Napa Valley Arts Council, recognized that correlation when Faletti approached her with the idea for Art Responds. The resulting exhibition, partially funded through fire recovery grants, ultimately meant different things to each viewer, she said.

“She was really able to weave a story that brought all of this together,” Dodd said. “Some people couldn’t [view it]; it was too hard. For others, it was cathartic—it was what they needed.”

A sense of artistic catharsis was evident within many of the exhibit’s pieces. Art Responds included four artists who lost their homes in the blazes, including documentary photographer Norma Quintana.

Before the blazes, Quintana only worked in film photography. Afterwards, with both her home and studio destroyed, she picked up her iPhone to document what she found in the ashes.

The resulting series of photos, titled Forage From Fire, documented family heirlooms, tools, photos, and other objects, each piece placed against the backdrop of a black hazmat glove.

Elsewhere, Julia Crane’s wall-sized Memory of the Trees used ash, charcoal, and charred earth on paper to reflect, up close, detailed landscape damage, while photographer Lowell Downey’s aerial images gave a bird’s-eye view of the same forests atop the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountains.

Downey said Art Responds proved itself a way to heal as well as jump-start important discussions. “All of us tried to find our own personal way to process it, and what we did was create a whole new, substantial body of work about fire,” Downey said. “You’re seeing a great deal of considered work about the topic, about the way fire is connected to the environment.”

For Faletti, currently at work on a book that will use art to address water and the environment in California, it’s a way to help people more clearly understand the issues through the lens of art and the humanities.

“That’s the voice of the future for these problems,” she says.

It is also, of course, about moving through all those stages of grief. To that end, Faletti says that—in a way—she’s reached acceptance.

“You can’t just sit back and say, ‘OK, I’ve accepted that, that happened, put that in a box, put it away. Now I’ll move on,’” she says. “It has to be, ‘I have to run into the fire, so to speak, and find out what’s there.’” ◆