Santa Rosa painter Bill Gittins sees the world in living color.
A Fountaingrove-based plein air painter for the past 35 years of his life, Gittins’ painting took the form of stress relief at first — a weekends-and-evenings hobby away from his career in human relations. Considering himself a “colorist,” Gittins’ works are luscious and bucolic, with broad flourishes of polychroma reflecting the idylls of Fountaingrove in oil and watercolor.
But as the Tubbs fire ravaged homes in his neighborhood and throughout Sonoma County, he saw a whole lot of red. As he recalls it, it was a throbbing, dirty red coming over the hill; a red that gave way to the eventual grays and browns left in the wake of the fires.
He and his wife of 51 years, Pat, left their home on Kilarney Circle at 1am with only their cell phones and the clothes on their back.
“It was very surreal,” Gittins says. “We look back now and, in retrospect, we didn't know whether we had much time or not. We had no idea how fast that fire was moving.”
By the time Gittins and his wife drove away, the fire had already reached the driveway of Paradise Ridge Winery, just across the street from their home. “It was almost like you didn't have time to think,” he says. “We didn't grab any real valuables.”
By the morning, Gittins had lost his home, his studio, and all of his paintings.
The day before talking to KQED on the phone, Gittins and his wife had driven back to Fountaingrove. The scene, he says, was straight out of a surrealist painting. A single home in his neighborhood still stood, unharmed, amidst 46 homes that burned, and lamp posts bent from the heat evoked Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory.
“It was just surreal. I cannot describe it in any other way,” Gittins says. “Our neighbors directly across from us, their home was totally destroyed except for maybe a three-foot wide corner on their garage that went straight up, just standing there like an obelisk. Totally untouched, and their garden hose was hanging by the spigot, leaning on the hook... I just couldn't believe it.”
When the fire hit, Gittins had just cleaned out his studio and garage for ArtTrails, the popular open-studio tour in Sonoma County that he’s participated in for the past five years.
“I had completed about 35 new paintings for ArtTrails over the last several months, and that was while I was doing some commission pieces at the same time,” he says.
Gittins has had such a history with the open-studios tour that one of his paintings — the serene Sunset Along Poppy Creek — was featured on the cover of ArtTrails' collector guide last year. He was planning to display 60 paintings this year.
“And then,” he says, “they're gone.”
Gittins and his wife consider themselves lucky. Three houses down, one of their neighbors died in the fire. Many others in the city have lost jobs, or haven’t found stable housing. Gittins and his wife are renting a small apartment behind a friend’s house in west Santa Rosa, and he’s setting up a new studio in the space.
The couple has spent much of their time filing insurance claims and change-of-address forms. Tragedy coupled with bureaucracy has made for a tough transition. But the influx of support Gittins has received from the larger Santa Rosa arts community, he says, has been humbling.
In addition to local store Riley Street Art Supply offering discounts for artists impacted by the fire, two artists have reached out to the Gittins to donate art for their new home.
“There've been moments where you definitely give somebody a big hug and you choke up when somebody is willing to do that kind of thing,” he says, “trying to help you feel like you're getting back to normal."
At this year's ArtTrails in October, organizers accepted donations at every open studio, the proceeds of which will be distributed to artists who need assistance after the fire. Even the act of strolling through others’ studios at ArtTrails has been cathartic for the Gittins. He knows it will take some time, but he sees a glint of rebirth amid his own loss.
At the moment, Gittins is working with community members to rebuild the 46 homes lost in his neighborhood. He plans on painting once he’s settled in, and will repaint the commissioned artworks that were destroyed by the blaze. (He even has a sense of humor about it: “Doing a commission piece twice for the same price; that's just the way life is,” he quips.)
When I ask Gittins if witnessing the fire’s destruction would affect his art in any way, he rebuffs the thought. "It's all gonna come back,” he says. “I will paint Santa Rosa as it needs to be, and that is with fall leaves at this point, greens and yellows and oranges, oak trees that still have 60 shades of green.”
With thoughts of the future, Gittins remains resolute. “I want to make my paintings represent Sonoma County as I remember it,” he says, “and as I know it will become.”