Last October, once the flames that torched her Redwood Valley neighborhood and killed eight of her fellow townspeople finally died out, Dee Pallesen poked through the ashes of her home, plucking treasures from the debris — blue marbles, melted jewelry, a pair of scorched scissors. They were now symbols of a previous life, the one that burned to the ground as flames raced over the ridge and wreaked tragedy on her rural neighborhood.
"I mean I've looked at these things a couple times in the last nine months," Pallesen said of her collection, "and asked myself why I was keeping them."
But over the last few weeks, Pallesen found purpose for her burned artifacts — as she gathered with other fire victims in a nearby Ukiah art studio to transform them into mosaic art pieces.
"Just little things you wouldn’t know what to do with otherwise," Pallesen said sitting at a table, gluing ceramic pieces onto a board of her rescued treasures. "Now we have this memento."
More than a dozen women have turned out for the weekly gatherings, the common thread the colossal experience of loss; all lost homes — some lost family members to the raging inferno.
But the workshops have created the alchemy for transforming various pieces of debris into colorful artworks that will serve as additional reminders of the journey back from devastation. The mosaics have become a fitting metaphor for the experience.
"The mosaic is you're picking up the pieces," said Elizabeth Raybee, the artist running the classes, "you're in a lot of cases breaking things ourselves and then putting them back together in a new form, and that's exactly what this is about."
Nori Dolan, who lost her house in the blaze, came up with the idea for the art workshops after sifting through the debris of her home, rescuing the scorched bits and pieces of her life. She enlisted Raybee to host the workshops, bringing together a group of women bonded by shared experience.
"I think that that is sort of a catalyst for people to feel more free and open as they're creating," Dolan said, "to even talk more about what has happened and their experience."
On a recent Saturday, a dozen women milled around Raybee's backyard studio, making art and swapping stories of harrowing escapes from the fast-moving flames. Piles of burned debris sat next tables; bent spoons, blackened earrings, bits of broken china. Eliza Frey glued pieces around a mirror her mother found in a thrift store, a singular piece of furniture intended for the home she soon hoped to rebuild.
"I think it’ll be nice to have this in home in the future," Frey said, "just as a reminder of all of the whole process and what we've gone through as a family."
The flames incinerated Rayna Freedman's house to the point there wasn't even enough to scrape up to put in a mosaic. Instead she used materials furnished by Raybee to create colorful signs for her future home.
"It's rare to be around people who can stand in your shoes, and because everyone here can stand in your shoes in a different way," Freedman said. "There's a sense you don't have to explain yourself because you're understood."
Kathy Monroe created a mosaic image of the hill rising above her home — a dragon emblem symbolizing the flames crawling across the ridge line, bearing down on her home. In a corner she used china to symbolize her horses which were saved. She also incorporated stucco from her walls, wood from her garden fence and nails from her barn.
"We all lived our own versions of this story and it was amazing how many versions there are," Monroe said as Pallesen looked on.
Pallesen glued her husband’s melted Cal Fire badge onto her mosaic, along with her burned jewelry and the lenses of her binoculars. The ornately clustered artifacts formed a colorful artwork she also planned to hang in a soon-to-be built home.
"It’s just a reminder of how much is gone," Pallesen said looking at her collection of mementoes, "a reminder of what we lost."