I have never seen Clifford Rainey’s sculptures in the “flesh.” Nor have I seen the thousands of works of art he created in the 47 years since he entered art school in his native Northern Ireland.
But I have seen in his eyes, and in the creases that line his still relatively youthful face, the weariness of a man struggling to come back from devastating loss. “The fire took all the works that I have made and collected for myself,” he explains. “The sculptures, the molds, the drawings, the paintings, all of it. I am 69 years old, and what’s troubling me most is there just isn’t enough time left in my life to replace or recapture what’s gone.”
Standing in the wreckage of his studio, by a small pond nestled in a hilltop basin not far from his home in Napa, CA, Rainey points to a melted mass of green glass. “That was one 12-inch cubic pedestal that was going to be the base for a sculpture evoking the Statue of Liberty, holding a Molotov cocktail in her outstretched hand, all cast from old Coke bottles.”
Each pedestal, he explains, required two days to heat and shape, two months to cool and four weeks to grind and polish.
“And that’s just the pedestal. If am going to continue working like this,” he adds with a wry smile, “I am going to have to speed things up.”
Like so many others whose homes and livelihoods were consumed by Napa’s Atlas Peak fire last month, Rainey and his partner, the artist and floral designer Rachel Riser, were sound asleep when the blaze began to roar down the ridge above their home.
“A neighbor buzzed us on our cell phones,” he recalls. “I ignored mine but Rachel answered. The man said, 'You have to get the hell out immediately.' I ran to the window and saw the wall of fire. I scooped up the cat and a small safe with our passports and documents, and jumped in my truck. Rachel did the same, filling her van with flowers for an event she had later that day, and we each drove down the hill to an elementary school we thought would be safe.”
Rachel then drove on to San Francisco for her early-morning pickup at the regional flower market. And Rainey, concerned that he had left too many things behind, drove back up to the hill, dashed into the house and grabbed some drawings from his college days in Northern Ireland, two books from his more than one-thousand volume library (a 17th century tome about witches in England and an in-depth primer about bronze casting), two pillows upholstered from pieces of a prized Turkish rug he’d purchased at a souk in Istanbul, and his laptop.
On the way down the hill he stopped to unlock the gate to his studio. The fire was now dangerously close. Through the trees leading to the pond, he could see flames. He looked up at the surrounding ridges as they burned. “It was actually quite beautiful,” he remembers. “The night sky all bathed in red.”
Minutes later, back down in the elementary school parking lot, he pushed the seat back in his truck and fell fast asleep. Until police rapped on his window and told him move along. The fire was making its way down the hill. He drove to a friend’s house, pulled over, and went back to sleep, reasonably certain his home and studio had been destroyed.
From the time he was little boy making wood carvings in his grandfather’s cabinet-making shop in Belfast, Rainey absorbed the lessons and inspirations that came with living an inquisitive, creative life. After attending several art schools in the United Kingdom, he went on to a prolific career as a sculptor (his works have been collected in 22 museums and public venues in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Canada and the United States), and he has taught art and sculpture at nine art schools and colleges in Britain and the U.S. He is currently Glass Program Chair and Professor of Fine Art at the California College of Art in Oakland.
Through the years, he’s also managed to travel the world, from Scandinavia to the eastern Mediterranean, from Africa to the Caribbean, with multiple stints across North America before landing on his hilltop in Napa County. The son of a working-class Belfast family, who came of age during the terrible sectarian troubles in his homeland, he embraced art as an alternative path forward — not least because it was a powerful argument for a better, more equitable, more empathetic world.
In Greece and Turkey as well as in eastern and southern Africa, he discovered aesthetic values and humanistic themes that have colored his works ever since: the structure, design and organizing principles of classic Greek columns, the dignity and elegance of traditional African sculpture, and the themes of freedom, justice and democracy present then and now in those cultures.
All of which helps explain why the loss of Rainey’s work is so staggering. And, alternately, why its presence in so many collections around the globe is such an immense, if partial, relief. And yet today, in the here and now, the magnitude of what has been taken away has imposed some unforgiving truths.
‘I don’t have a pension,” he confesses bluntly. “I didn’t save money for retirement. Instead, I put aside at least one piece from each of each of my most important collections to sell to help cover my needs later in life. That’s all gone now.”
Everything he and Rachel kept in their house is also gone — their clothes, their books, keepsakes and mementos from their travels, including all their personal photographs. The home, at least, was insured, but the studio was not. Presently, they are staying in a small hotel in Napa as they piece together a plan for what’s next.
There is one project Rainey embarked on before the fire that has moved front and center in his plans, a kind of emblem for both the predicament and the promise of his situation. He calls it the Sarco Creek Project, a personal, environmental, artistic commitment to return the 13-acre plot of land that surrounds the pond and the site of his studio to its natural state.
For decades in the 1900s, the land was a pumice quarry, where the earth was laid bare to access the rock. After the quarry was abandoned (approximately 50 years ago, Rainey guesses), it became overgrown with invasive plants as the pond formed.
“My dream is to sculpt that earth back into line with the curve of the land, replant native California plants, and nurture the pond to where it becomes a habitat for wild breeding ducks and geese, reptiles and other amphibians. I want indigenous birds and mammals to come back, and for Rachel and I to build a home some day.”
Job one on this long road was the arduous, multi-year task of eradicating the thickets of non-native plants. “That,” he says with a smile, “is done now. Thank you, fire.”
The world weariness in Rainey's eyes seems to recede when he explains how, in just a few weeks, artists and friends from around the Bay Area will gather on the property in a large-scale effort to sift through the studio ruins searching for materials Rainey can use for future sculptures and other projects. His grandfather’s cabinetry tools from Belfast, for instance; Rainey had collected them in the studio in hopes of making casts of each in an homage to his grandfather’s craftsmanship. “We’ll find whatever is left of them and from that I will make something. I just don’t know what that something is yet.”
It's clear that the inspiration Rainey needs is already lodged within him, his lifelong artistic commitment to exploration and discovery, and his growing belief that from the ashes he will find a newly honed creative direction. Time and money will no doubt create twists and detours in the path ahead. But it seems safe to say that the instincts and abilities honed over a long career are not only intact, but beginning to bubble anew.
That’s good news for Clifford Rainey — and for all of us who want to see what this man can still do.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.