Jason Cowan
The Union Democrat

“This is our Vietnam Memorial. This is our Twin Towers. It’s an incredible history of Calaveras County. The Butte Fire was the seventh largest fire in California’s history. Maybe (the mosaic) will give us a rebirth in District 2.”

—Mary Jane Genochio, Calaveras County Arts Council executive director

Robin Modlin was digging through a cardboard box Thursday of recently delivered Butte Fire debris at her home, deep inside the vineyard-laced hills in Murphys.

After a moment of careful examination and the gentle clinking of ceramics against one another, she picked up a teapot, coated in ash, that looked as if it was plucked just yesterday from the rubble.

“This was someone’s home and their memories, their hopes and their dreams,” Modlin said. “Who did she serve tea to? You wonder.”

Modlin’s home was not damaged when the Butte Fire devastated a large swath of Calaveras County in September, but emotionally, she was. Now she feels the pressure — what she considers an honor — to redefine a period most associate with heartbreak, devastation and loss to that of rebirth and inspiration.

And she will do so with a mosaic of Butte Fire remains.

The artwork, to be called “Pieces,” began the month after the fire when Modlin pondered what she could do to help the victims. The professional artist, who has created a number of community-based healing projects for various hospitals at Stanford, knew she needed support. So she reached out to the Calaveras County Arts Council.

“They really loved the idea,” Modlin said. “They just embraced me and the idea.”

It was through the arts council, which also worked to gather funds and be the mouthpiece for the project, that the Butte Fire debris donations came in.

Modlin said the response from the community has been strong and about 50 homes have contributed.

“That’s a pretty good number,” Modlin said.

Thus far, Modlin, who will be collaborating with Anne Cook, of Acme Art in Mokelumne Hill, has sorted through and washed the debris, which ranges from ceramics to glass, metals and marbles.

On Thursday, inside her recently built art studio, she was smashing and nipping ceramic remains into smaller pieces. She said each piece will be put together on a cinderblock wall, like a puzzle.

“A lot of design happens while you’re going,” Modlin said.

She does not know exactly what the mosaic will look like at this point. The end product will be determined by the materials she has. But she said she could picture a lotus flower, a sacred plant common in Eastern religions known to grow out from dirt and garbage, somewhere on the mosaic.

“Pieces” is not expected to be completed until the later portion of this year. Modlin said she hopes the physical wall, a structure 6-feet-long by 6-feet-wide by 2-feet-thick, to be built in May, the pieces to be placed June to August and the mosaic to be unveiled on the anniversary of the fire.

The mosaic will be placed in Mountain Ranch near the community park. It will be viewable from the road and will be along the walking, bike path.

If Modlin was an artist on commission, a project like “Pieces” could run $10,000, she said.

The arts council would like to see Modlin and Cook be paid for the work, but the piece will be created regardless of the compensation.

“Usually, when you do something as a professional artist, you add in the cost for creating design, the hours, all that,” Modlin said.

Modlin said she cannot gauge what the reactions from people will be. But she believes willingness of those who have contributed debris to the mosaic could be an indication.

Mary Jane Genochio, the executive director of the arts council who lost her home in the Butte Fire, has donated debris. She said, amid tears and a shaky voice, the Butte Fire was a powerful event that should be remembered.

In addition to the mosaic, a traveling exhibit will be featured. The exhibit will be more a history of the fire display. Modlin said the exhibit will be a presentation set up in a way that each individual piece of rubble is like a piece of art in itself. A poem or statement will accompany each piece.

“We’re going to have it at libraries and a couple other places,” Modlin said.

While the mosaic could be a tribute to the power of the fire, Genochio said it is also a tribute to the sense of community. The debris, which Genochio calls sacred items, was a part of her life she can share with others.

“This is our Vietnam Memorial. This is our Twin Towers. It’s an incredible history of Calaveras County. The Butte Fire was the seventh largest fire in California’s history,” Genochio said. “Maybe (the mosaic) will give us a rebirth in District 2.”