‘Call and Response’: Tahoe artist processes Caldor Fire with art collection | SierraSun.com

‘Call and Response’: Tahoe artist processes Caldor Fire with art collection

Zentner wanted to capture the new light falling on the once familiar landscapes in the forests near her home in the charcoal and oil pastel drawing, “In the Wings.”
Photo / Shelley Zentner

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — When artist Shelley Zentner evacuated from her home in Christmas Valley last summer as the rapidly growing Caldor Fire made its way into the Tahoe Basin, she had no idea what she would return to. Her family left with as many personal belongings and works of her art as possible. 

Three weeks later, Zentner returned to an unscathed house. The forest where she walked daily for inspiration and meditation, however, was irreparably changed by the fire that burned 221,835 acres, destroyed 1,003 structures, and damaged 81 more. 

“We didn’t even feel like we could properly unpack because the fire was still burning. We didn’t know if we were going to have to leave again. That safety and security that you take for granted, that felt very threatened as well,” says Zentner. “I was thinking of all the people that did lose their houses and all of the animals that were burned. There were feelings of guilt and that this may not be the safest place anymore. It took a while to process these feelings and the way I do that is get out and start sketching.”  

When the forests reopened, Zentner found a burn scar from a spot fire near her home and began sifting through the charred remains. 

“I’ve always loved working with charcoal. As I’m picking through the wood, my hands are black and there’s this familiar presence of earthiness on my fingertips and I thought, ‘I’ve got to make some drawings from this.’ I felt light return to me. That spark of inspiration,” recalls Zentner. 

Zentner used the foraged charcoal, oil pastels and oil paint to create a collection that captures the scarred landscape that was once so familiar. She noted the light filtering through the burned trees and the sharp reflections and blooms of algae in the river, which ran lower and warmer from the drought. 

“I think it goes back to our early ancestors. Early humans making marks in caves. Paleolithic cave paintings and drawings. They were made with charcoal and earth pigments. It is that primal instinct to make in response to what’s going on around you and within you,” notes Zentner. 

Zentner named her collection of drawings and paintings “Call and Response,” a nod to the music she noticed in the landscape but also the massive effort by the firefighters and other first responders. She donated a portion of her proceeds to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, which supports the families of fallen firefighters.  

“Nature is always transforming, and this was my way of making peace with that transformation around me,” adds Zentner. 

Discover more of Zentner’s work at http://www.shelleyzen.us.

Editor’s note: This story appears in the 2022 summer edition of Tahoe Magazine.

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