After the Fire 2: Starting Again

Looking Back: 2020's wildfires left the artisans of Oregon's Santiam Canyon reeling. A luthier and a painter look at what comes next.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The year 2020 has been unlike any in recent memory, piling uncertainty upon uncertainty and disaster upon disasterIt’s included a devastating wildfire season across the West, including a massive September fire that destroyed forests and towns in Oregon’s Santiam Canyon, where a thriving arts and crafts scene had grown up. In yesterday’s first of two stories for ArtsWatch, After the Fire 1: Scarred Landscape, writer and photographer Dee Moore turned a lens on the ash and ruin of the fire’s charred aftermath. In today’s Part 2, we hear from two of the canyon’s artisans – a logger-turned-painter and a luthier/community radio station manager – about what might come next.


STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY DEE MOORE


Paul Toews’s ties to Santiam Canyon are indelible. His career as a logger started there. It is where he has lived, built his home, made a life, and attempted to make reparations to nature and the forest for a career in logging. And it has long been the inspiration of his many paintings.

“I’ve got a real tie with the land, and it goes back to my profession as a logger,” said Toews, who is 74. “The reason that I am explaining that is that it’s directly connected with my land, and probably the reason that I moved up there. I wanted a little bit where I could do some payback. I could give back what I took.

“I paint realism, and it’s considered contemporary impressionalism. I don’t draw individual leaves as much as the movement of things.” Toews’s primary medium is watercolor. He has painted since high school, but embraced it professionally after he gave up logging following a near-death scare. He began painting professionally, he said, “about the turn of 2000; I started making an effort to establish a studio and establish a clientele and started doing shows and teaching.”

When the Santiam Fire burned through Gates on Sept. 9, Toews lost almost everything: his home, which he had designed and built; and more than 30 paintings. Only the items in his Stayton studio, Art Gone Wild, remained untouched.


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


“At least 35, maybe 40 (paintings),” he said with a groan when we talked in late November. “Every once in a while one comes to mind and I think, that was up there.”

His voice had a ragged edge as he described his loss. The trauma remains. Toews has yet to see the effect the fire and loss will have on his art. So far all he has worked on are commissioned pieces. He’s yet to pick up a brush for himself.

Paul Toews, logger turned artist: burned out, starting again.

“Well, I think you’d have to come back maybe in a year for me to be able to answer that,” he said, “because this week was the first time I picked up a brush, and it was a commission job so it was already established what I did. So it’s not a test of what might have shifted inside of me somehow. I haven’t painted – so, yeah, that’s going to be a test of where my mind is I think when I start off that, but I really haven’t had the chance to just say, ‘Okay, what do I want to do?’”

***

THE WHOLE OF SANTIAM CANYON – including Idanha, Detroit, Gates, Mill City, Lyons, Mehama – has been home to a thriving artistic community. It is supported by Santiam Hearts to Arts, a fine and performing arts nonprofit arts organization in Mill City. The communities in the canyon provided inspiration and support to the crafts workers and artisans who lived there, and embraced those who relocated there to pursue their talents after retiring from more commercial careers.

Luthier Ken Cartwright lost his home, shop, tools, and all of his instruments when his home in Gates burned. Woken from a sound sleep in the early morning hours of Sept. 9, Cartwright barely had time to get out of bed and leave his house. T­he fire was nearly upon him and his wife, Jan, by the time the sirens sounded. After getting Jan, a jewelry maker and musician, on the road he took off to Mill City, where he is station manager and program director of a low-watt community radio station, KYAC.

There Cartwright began broadcasting the fire warning, hoping to reach those who could not hear the siren. He stayed on air until he was evacuated from the station. It was a harrowing experience.

“I’ve been so busy with putting my life back together again that as far as the art in my life I have not had much time at all to build any music instruments, repair any music instruments or play any music instrument,” he said.

Ken Cartwright, luthier and community radio station manager, in the KYAC studio in Mill City.

“We left the house with what we were wearing and that was it. That was the only thing we took with us. We were caught off guard by it, so unprepared for it. It just still doesn’t seem real. Who’d have thought that we’d lose our property to a fire? You just don’t think about that. Our neighborhood, which was seven or eight blocks long, is completely gone and it’s completely different. The only structure near us that survived was city hall, and it sits on the north part of our property, but that’s the only reference that we are still in the neighborhood. The rest of it, it’s like a lunar landscape up there.”

“We’re slowly getting past all of that right now, but there isn’t a day that goes by, hardly an hour that goes by that, that we don’t think about, “Well, I have or had” … it usually turns from a have to had. We’re constantly thinking about it. You know hindsight is one of those words … if only we’d taken a few minutes to grab this or that, but unfortunately we didn’t. We had to evacuate immediately.”

As Cartwright has found before, experience with the loss caused by a natural disaster does not change its impact. “I have been through Hurricane Camille and saw that kind of damage, but I have never lived through a devastation like this, this kind of a fire. So it caught us all by … ” – he paused momentarily, at a loss for the words to describe his experience – “and we’re still not used to it. Every day it changes, now because of the trees that are coming down that were destroyed and some houses that were partially standing are now completely gone, so every day it’s still different.”

For now the Cartwrights are living part of the week with a friend in Mill City and spend the rest of the week working on their property while living in an RV they were given after the fire.

The shock and loss will continue to plague the victims of the Santiam Fire for a while yet. According to the National Institutes of Health, the effects of living through a natural disaster include shock, PTSD, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and trauma.

***

CARTWRIGHT AND TOEWS BOTH LEAN HEAVILY on humor and perspective to cope with the effects of fire.

“It’s kind of like I have a clear canvas and I have all the paints and the brushes I need,” Toews said, “but I keep my chin up because I guess it’s the journey, you know; it’s not the end, it’s the journey. What’s the next step? I think I’ll look (at it like) that until the day I die. What’s the next step?”

“It’s our sense of humor that really gets us through this,” Cartwright said. “There is a future for us and we’re looking forward to getting through this period that we’re going through now. It’s very awkward, it’s very demanding, very time-consuming, and it’s very easy to get frustrated. I get that way, too, but because I report to the community on everyone’s efforts and everyone’s struggles it’s important for me stay focused on what we have to do next.”

Toews and Cartwright know how fortunate they are in the midst of this tragedy: Insurance will cover much of their losses, and the community has held fundraisers to help the victims out,. But they are also aware that friends and artists have suffered similar fates without the same safety net.

A restored water wheel is all that’s left of Colby Lamb’s home east of Gates, near Niagara Park.

“There were five people associated with our community radio station who lost their homes,” Cartwright said. “A friend of ours who owns property up around Niagara, you know where the waterwheel sat? That was our friend Colby Lamb, Colby and his wife Diane. He was an artist, a retired machinist, and he made very high-end turntables for stereo enthusiasts. And he lost everything, his machine shop, his audio equipment. Many other people up here that were artists that lost their home.”

The waterwheel is all that is left of the Lambs’ home.

Both Towes and Cartwright plan to rebuild their homes. Just days before the fire, Cartwright and his wife had finished renovation on a home they had bought less than two years before.

“I am 74, my wife is 76,” Cartwright said, “and it’s a struggle for us at this age to want to grab a hammer and get out there and rebuild a place like we’ve done for years. But we have an opportunity to rebuild on the same spot and, jokingly I say, but I truly do mean this, at least this time (after) working so hard on a fixer-upper and losing it we’ll wind up with a home that has level floors, straight walls and square corners.”

Paul Toews’s studio in Stayton survived the fire. His home in Gates didn’t.

Toews lost a home he designed and built out of wood he had been collecting over the course of his career as a logger. The house was made up of rare and unique woods, with soaring ceilings and 20-foot windows. He also lost a cabin he’d built and lived in before building his house, as well as 32 acres of timber.

But the biggest heartbreak for Toews is the loss of his source of inspiration; the place he would go to quiet his soul and seek solace.

When asked about the loss of his life’s work, Toews said that it has been difficult to cope with. “But you know what really hit me the hardest? I love my place, love my house, love my shed, love my shop, love my cabin, but what hit the hardest was I finally got back up to Rocky Top, where you can look over the watersheds of Opal Creek and Cedar Creek and Elk Horn Creek, and you look over there tens of thousands of acres and not a speck of green, completely wiped out; and yes, nature will heal itself, but it will never be the same for hundreds of years.

“That’s tough for me because that’s my go-to place, that’s my redemptive place where I go back and say, well, it’s growing back, look at the beauty of it, where there use to be a stand of old growth now there’s a meadow, there’s some old stumps sticking out but look at the bear sign, I hear a growl, it’s coming back and it felt good, but now that’s gone, gone, and that’s the tough part.

“I know it’s nature, but this here, this was an epic fire and I, yes, think it will shape my art. It’s definitely shaping my life, so I have no doubt it will my art, too. As for my own personal stuff, I am handling that quite well. It might all come crashing down on me one of these days but I think my friends weep for me more than I weep for myself. I love them for it.”

About the author

Dee Moore is a queer freelance journalist and artist whose personal work focuses on gender identity and explores the dynamics of gender expression and what gender means. She grew up in Beaumont, Texas, where she longed to be a boy. She studied journalism and art at Lamar University in Beaumont, and now lives in the Salem area, where she works, sculpts and shoots. She was an artist in residence at the Salem Art Association Bush Barn Annex, where she took studio portraits of members of Salem’s LGBTQIA community who often fear getting professional photos taken because of prejudice and bigotry. She has exhibited work at Bush Barn Annex, Prisms Gallery, and The Space. Dee is genderfluid (this is one word) and bisexual. Her pronouns are she/her or they/them. Find more of her work at cameraobscuraimages.com.

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