In August 2020, local artist Mary May Tartaro almost lost everything. She and her family lived on 25 acres in the San Lorenzo Valley with multiple buildings on their property, including their family home, Tartaro’s artist studio, her son’s cabin, a guest house and their barn. When the CZU Lightning Complex tore through the area, Tartaro was sure that she and her family would return to rubble following their mandatory evacuation. Incredibly, the fire consumed four buildings on the property, but their home was untouched.
“We were incredibly lucky,” Tartaro says.
Tartaro has parlayed that luck into a voice for local artists. She developed the idea for “Together We Rise: Artists and the Responders of the CZU Fire,” an exhibit showcasing the work of various artists at the Felix Kulpa Gallery in Santa Cruz. The city’s Arts Recovery Design Program funded the idea, and Tartaro joined forces as the curator with artists Devi Pride, Jennifer Cordery, Jane Wrankle, Sam Clarkson and Liz Payne.
The pandemic had forced the artistic hive on Elm Street to shutter for two years. However, the gate swung open again on Aug. 5, 2022, marking not only the resumption of the gallery’s business but also the opportunity for artists to express themselves through their photography, drawings, sculptures, clay and more.
Tartaro aimed to shine a light on local artists impacted by the fire. “Together We Rise” features exhibits from artists in Ben Lomond, Bonny Doon, Boulder Creek and Swanton Road in Davenport.
The six participating artists had all been given small grants by the Santa Cruz City Arts Commission, lending to the excitement of the gallery’s return. With over 200 people attending the First Friday event, Tartaro says she and her fellow artists were blown away by the initial reception.
Each artist was asked to provide a personal story about their experience to display with their work; they also included a list of residents and organizations that helped support the artists in their time of need. There was a common theme among the artists’ stories: loss.
“We all shared our lists, and there was a lot of overlap between us,” Tartaro says. “It was a great way for us to thank all these people, show the resiliency of the artists and the tightness of the community.”
In addition to the stories, the exhibits and connecting with the artists, the First Friday event also featured Mountain Community Theater’s new film by Peter Gelblum, The CZU Fire in Their Own Words, which details the impact of the fire as told by San Lorenzo Valley residents.
“The screening was outdoors in the garden, which made a lot of people happy,” says Tartaro.
The show will run for two months, with another First Friday event planned for Sept. 2.
“In 2020, when the gallery closed, artists were displaced, so the grand reopening of the gallery was about how people bounced back from disaster and began their healing process,” Tartaro says. “It’s a display of courage and resilience and a way for everyone to tell their stories. It’s a celebration of that determination and how we rise together.”
“Together We Rise: Artists and the Responders of the CZU Fire” is on display at the Felix Culpa Gallery and Sculpture Garden, 107 Elm St., Santa Cruz. Visit felixkulpa.com for more information.