As the walls of flame approached her Santa Rosa home, Melanie Carlston frantically grabbed her mother’s paintings off the walls. She tossed a couple of dozen of them into a box she took with her as she fled, hopeful the artwork left behind would survive.
More than a year after the Sonoma County wildfires swept through the North Bay, causing $15 billion in damage and 44 deaths, Carlston is safe and living in a new house with her husband, Michael. But hundreds of paintings by her mother, the late graffiti artist Edith Kallman, are gone forever.
“By far the hardest thing was all the art. I was absolutely devastated, I couldn’t sleep for like a month,” she said. “The psychological loss is just intense grief. Sometimes I feel like I let my mom down by letting her artwork burn.”
Carlston was able to save about 25 smaller pieces. Her father had another 34 in his apartment at a nearby retirement home, including sketches he kept in a box under his bed, all untouched by the fire. Friends and relatives who had been given paintings by Kallman over the years contacted Carlston, offering to return them.
Though she also lost cars, jewelry, photos, family heirlooms and, of course, her house, the destruction of the art — including works such as “Obsessive,” a pair of paintings in which the word is written over and over in abstract form — hurt the most.
“These two large paintings were a huge loss for me, as they hung in my parents’ kitchen for many years and then in my living room for the last two years before the fire,” she said. “My mother told me when I was young that I would be the recipient of them.”
As part of the personal and community healing process, the Carlstons will be selling limited-edition prints of Kallman’s works this spring at local gift stores and galleries, with profits going to art therapy organizations that help fire victims.
Kallman was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1926, and moved to the Bay Area in 1959 with her young family, living in Sunnyvale and Saratoga. She and her husband, Nathan, were among the co-founders of Congregation Beth David in Saratoga in 1963.
She received a master’s degree in art from San Jose State in 1977 and focused on graffiti that included the repetition of words in a calligraphic style to create patterns. Some of her works contain messages that morph into graphic images.
She died in 2014, and when Nathan moved to the Santa Rosa retirement community, the bulk of the collection of Kallman’s art — none of which was insured — was sent to Carlston’s home for storage. (Nathan died last September.)
The art was kept safe until the night of Oct. 8, 2017, when the Tubbs Fire destroyed more than 5,600 homes and other structures in the Santa Rosa area.
“By 1 a.m., the flames were peeking over the mountain ridge. They must have been more than 100 feet high, and they had gotten wider. They were coming down the mountain,” Michael Carlston wrote in a piece for the Washington Post a week after the disaster.
“We began to pack more earnestly. I packed my laptop, sleep apnea machine and accordion. My wife started to gather her mother’s artwork — she was a prolific and talented painter; we have hundreds of her paintings. But it still didn’t seem possible that the fire would actually take our home.”
Melanie Carlston said if they had truly believed the flames could reach their home, they would have taken all of the artwork — about 100 pieces on the walls, and another 325 stored in their home — and brought them to her husband’s medical office in downtown Santa Rosa.
“I was taking things off the walls and I had a box I was throwing them in. I ran around the house and just took the easy things to grab. I wasn’t choosing, because I love all of her art,” she said. “I wasn’t panicked so much, because I thought we’d be back.”
The past 16 months have been a blur of insurance claims, debris removal, renting a place in Marin County and buying and renovating another home in Santa Rosa. Beth David sent out a plea from Carlston asking “anyone who has photos of her parents or family or any of her mother’s paintings to please contact her” through the synagogue office.
Carlston said the sale of limited-edition, signed and numbered prints will most likely happen in late March, as more stores and galleries in Sonoma and Napa counties come on board.
“It’s been a hell of a year. We’ve been just like walking zombies,” Carlston said. “I’ll always be sad about my mother’s art. Here I am over a year later, and I’m just as stressed out as I was at the time of the fire.”