Gordon Studer was initially reluctant to leave St. Helena on Monday, Oct. 9. A power outage woke him up in the middle of the night, and he was told over the phone from others about wildfires that sparked around the county.
But his family insisted he leave, and so did Katharina Powers. Powers owns Art Ventures Gallery, an art gallery in Menlo Park that opened earlier this year, and the St. Helena art studios where Studer lives and works. Studer runs the artists in residence program, which provides space for international and California artists to live and create work to be exhibited at Powers’ gallery.
Studer was alone that Monday, as the last batch of artists in residence had departed two weeks prior after finishing their residency terms. Busy with preparations for the arrival of the next artist in residence — Israeli artist Aya Eliav coming from Barcelona — he left while things appeared relatively quiet, carrying only the clothes he was wearing and leaving behind 40 or so paintings of his own and those of the artists in residence.
“I thought, ‘I’ll come back tomorrow,’ and it’ll have blown by us because St. Helena was looking safe at that point,” says Studer, who is currently staying with family in San Jose.
But Studer’s journey out of the North Bay on Monday provided a jarring glimpse of what was to come.
“I was shocked at how everything looked normal in St. Helena. There were tourists, and people riding bikes and stuff,” Studer says. “And then as I started to get near Napa, it looked like a war zone. I mean, it was just black.”
As Studer made his way down Highway Route 29, the idyllic scenes of St. Helena quickly turned to dark skies, scorched black hills and fire trucks near live flames half a mile from the road.
When Powers heard of Studer’s experience, combined with the harrowing accounts by many others fleeing the North Bay, she decided she wanted to do something — anything.
“I’m sitting here in Menlo Park and watching all this up there, and I’m saying, ‘What can I do to be supportive?” Powers says. “People are losing everything. Their homes are gone. They (have to) start from scratch.”
Powers now plans to donate 50 percent of all art sales at the Artists Venture Gallery through Oct. 24 to the Red Cross for victims of the Wine Country fires. The 50 percent donation will be taken from the gallery’s cut. The other 50 percent will go to the artists, though several who have voluntarily delivered their works have asked the entirety of its sales to go toward relief efforts, Powers says.
The gallery’s current exhibition, “Summer of Love,” features art from New York painter David Geiser along with El Salvadoran artist in residence Gerardo Gómez. Studer and Powers, however, are also considering extending the exhibition to accommodate the influx of works being donated from other artists. The outpouring of support reminds her of the response from the artistic community following last year’s deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland.
All the while, Studer and Powers continue to track the Wine Country fires’ uncertain path that may still threaten Art Ventures Gallery’s own St. Helena studios.
“As you’re watching TV, you realize, you just don’t know where it’s going to end up,” Studer says. “We’re all scared.”
Brandon Yu is a Bay Area freelance writer.
Art Ventures Gallery: 50 percent of the proceeds from art work sold through Oct. 24 will be donated to the Red Cross. Noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. 888 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park. (650) 400-5325. www.artventuresgallery.com