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From This Moment On…Painting as Response to Wildfire

Nancy Willis,Glimmer, 2022, oil on canvas 30 x 40”

Nancy Willis,Glimmer, 2022, oil on canvas 30 x 40”

On view Sept 4-Oct 15, 2022 (Mon-Fri, 9 am-4:30 pm) at Napa Valley College Visual Arts Center

Artist Nancy Willis paints moments of everyday life from domestic and exterior scenes.  Her own garden has been the backdrop of many eventful dinner parties, lit by candles and strings of lights hanging from the redwoods. Moments from these events became motifs and recurring themes in her paintings.

Willis’ connection to her surroundings became much more acute with the wildfires of 2020. She was evacuated three times that fall and during the Glass Fire lived in a Napa hotel for 30 days. Her front yard in Deer Park hosted fire engines and first responders, working tirelessly to save the forested neighborhood and her house was sparred. The artist turned to painting with a sense of urgency, going back into some completed paintings and modifying them with the smoke and orange glow that she saw the night she left.

When she returned, she found the landscape that she shared with wildlife,  charred and devoid of color and life. With support from Arts Council Napa Valley Community Fund Grants, she began a series of paintings tracking the effects of the fire on the Redwood grove and forest near her home. She also collected artifacts and detritus from the fires, hearing stories of loss from neighboring families. With some of the materials she created a sculptural chandelier as a symbol of hope and installed it in Lyman Park in St. Helena for the one-year anniversary of the fire.

In July 2021, Willis was awarded and attended a painting residency in France which offered respite and relief. Paintings of the verdant green French landscape are included in the exhibition as a sign of recovery and hope. In the two-year project we follow the artist’s experience, seeing glimpses of animals returning, new growth bursting up at the base of the trees and depictions of a large Redwood that stood witness to fire.

Nancy writes, “Throughout my years of art making, I have pulled motifs from my personal life or created projects out of empathy for others. Until now, I have never used my process so overtly to work through my own trauma and grief. It weighs with an enormous gravity. I am confronting the security of my own existence as well as the security of the landscape we all share.”

The exhibition is curated by Amanda Badgett, art history professor at Napa Valley College who writes: “Through her paintings and prints, Nancy gives lie to the idea of a static landscape: a grove of redwoods, all blackened and spindly in one canvas, emerges in another bristling with new growth. In a valley whose economic well-being is inextricably tied to agriculture, looking at Nancy’s images reminds us of the fragility of landscape in the face of global warming and the now ever-present threat of fire.”

NVC Visual Arts Center:

The NVC Visual Arts program offers a comprehensive range of courses for both transfer/degree and lifelong learning students. Studio art, art history and digital art courses teach students to develop practical and conceptual skills while honing their ability to think critically, creatively and independently. Students may pursue an Associates of Arts degree or Certificate and prepare for transfer to a college, university or art school.

About the artist:

Nancy Willis has lived and worked in St. Helena/Deer Park since 1989 and holds and MFA from SFAI.  She is a painter, printmaker, curator, and teacher. Willis conceived of and curated two large exhibitions at the Napa Valley Museum; “Discrepancy/living in war and peace” which honored the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and “NOURISH” which explored the rituals around dining. Her ongoing project “Conflict Zone” examines how violence against women is used as a strategy of war. Until Covid, she taught at the Culinary Institute of America, and currently continues to teach at the Napa Valley College and Nimbus Arts.