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A photographer loses studio and art, but never faith


An artist who loses their home to fire feels no deeper pain than others who might experience such a shattering loss. If what is gone includes their art, however, it becomes our loss, as well.

Norma I. Quintana, 58, is an established photographer whose book “Circus: A Traveling Life,” published in 2014, documented the faces and the lives of a small troupe of performers who assembled from around the world to work out of the city of Hugo, Oklahoma, population 5,310. She was getting ready to head to Puerto Rico, where her parents were born and where she spent much of her childhood, to photograph the people there whose lives were disrupted by Hurricane Maria.

Instead, she experienced disaster herself when her Silverado Country Club home and studio in Napa went up in flames. She and her husband of 40 years, Sergio M. Manubens, a doctor, and two of their three children were at home Sunday night.

“I received a call from a dear friend (who) told us to look outside and we saw from the distance an orange glow,” she reported via email. Soon, they found police officers at their door, telling them to evacuate. “They would not leave until we left. The smoke was uber thick and we left with our autos … we took the contents of our safety deposit box … not much … passports etc. Then I managed to run into my studio and grab my Hasselblad … with one sense!

“I just thought we would be back and never ever thought it would burn … we had this house almost 30 years.”

On Monday morning, she said, “We received a photograph from a mobile of a friend who snuck in to see our street and it was shocking. But I must say it has helped me prepare for what I will see with my very own eyes.”

She had that opportunity on Thursday when police escorted her and her 13-year-old daughter Frida to the site. “I got excited for just one second,” she said by telephone. “I have a lot of faith.” But everything was gone: Her home. Her studio. All of her framed prints, returned from exhibitions at such venues as the galleries and museums of Pennsylvania State and American Universities and the Stanford University Center for Latin American Studies.

Her extensive collection of works by photographers she admires — Mary Ellen Mark, Sally Mann, Jerry Uelsmann and others — purchased with proceeds from sales of her own pictures, is all gone. So is the collection of more than 100 vintage cameras.

Her most important negatives, however, were with a master printer in Portland, and thus are safe. And, she said, she has received “a lot of love and support.” Friends who nows live in Houston loaned her family their west Napa home.

“Artists have reached out to me … The circus people have reached out to me.” It has given her perspective on “all the politics and nastiness” of recent months. “Now I’ve just realized, that’s kinda not important.” Even the lost exhibition prints have less significance.

“The photographs are in me,” she said.

Charles Desmarais is The San Francisco Chronicle’s art critic. Email: cdesmarais@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Artguy1




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