Artist Chris Henry lost the Santa Rosa home he'd lived in for 14 years in the Tubbs fire.

Artist Chris Henry lost the Santa Rosa home he'd lived in for 14 years in the Tubbs fire. (Nastia Voynovskaya/KQED)

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Even as he saw flames encroaching on the hills behind his home in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, Chris Henry didn’t think he was about to lose the house he’d lived in for the past 14 years.

Chris Henry's house before the fire.
Chris Henry’s house before the fire. (Chris Henry)

“I had no idea what these fires could do,” says the 56-year-old artist when we meet at a downtown Santa Rosa coffee shop. As we talk, he often glances at his phone to make sure he doesn’t miss a call from a family member or insurance agent. Since the flames took his home several weeks ago, his life has been filled with constant phone calls as he tries to put the pieces back together — so much so that he hasn’t had a chance to think about painting, even though he has clients expecting commissions.

“No, my focus isn’t there, partly because I have a new career: It’s being on the phone with insurance people,” he says with a half smile.

Henry is an abstract expressionist painter whose work is well-known around Sonoma County. He exhibits at Terra Firma Gallery in Sonoma and, for the past dozen years, he’s opened his studio to the public for the annual ArtTrails, a county-wide art crawl that takes place each year in October.

When Chris Henry returned early the next morning, his house was gone.
When Chris Henry returned early the next morning, his house was gone. (Chris Henry )

ArtTrails coincided with this year’s disastrous wildfires, and Henry had been looking forward to showing local art lovers his new studio, which he spent the summer building out in his garage. He estimates there were between 25 and 30 paintings in the studio, including a self-portrait he painted over 30 years ago. In a backyard shed were more expensive art supplies, including bronze sheeting and glass for mixed-media works.

Calculating the value of the losses, Henry says, has been overwhelming. “I haven’t gotten to that part yet. It’s too much.”

In many respects, though, Henry considers himself lucky. After he saw flames approaching and neighbors evacuating, he fled to his brother’s house in another part of Santa Rosa with his wife, stepson, daughter-in-law, and four-year-old granddaughter. They’d had to leave behind their two cats, and when Henry and his brother returned for them at around 4am the next morning, he saw his house was completely gone.

Two weeks after the fire, while scrolling through lost pets at animal shelters on Facebook, his daughter-in-law found their two cats; the white one had turned dark grey from the ash. “I almost didn’t recognize him,” Henry says.

Chris Henry's art studio before the fire.
Chris Henry’s art studio before the fire. (Chris Henry)

Fortunately for the family, they found a rental near Henry’s brother’s house, and the insurance on their home will help their plans to rebuild.

But for now, Henry and his family are trying to return to their routines and regain a sense of normalcy. His wife is back at work at her hair salon, and he’s looking for a new studio and already itching to get started on his commissions. Fortunately, Terra Firma Gallery has a good portion of his work, so not everything was lost.

Despite the experience, Henry is thankful that his family survived; not everyone in his neighborhood did. An estimated 17 of the identified fire victims were from Santa Rosa.

“I tend to look forward more than back, so I want to get up and going as soon as possible,” he says. “And listen, if you saw me the day after the fire, I was a mess. But I’ve come to a place where it really is, to me, just stuff.”

After Losing 30 Years of Artwork in Fire, a Painter Looks Ahead 6 November,2017Nastia Voynovskaya

Author

Nastia Voynovskaya

Nastia Voynovskaya is a Russian-born, California-raised journalist and the music editor at KQED Arts. Her work has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, VICE, Paste Magazine, and SF MoMA Open Space. Previously, she served as music editor at East Bay Express and online editor at Hi-Fructose Magazine.