Bay Art Academy students paint a mural to thank Kincade firefighters

One of Yang Chen’s first thoughts during the Kincade fire was of his students.

Chen runs the Bay Art Academy, an after-school art program in Santa Rosa’s Rincon Valley for elementary, middle and high school students — all of whom have seen school canceled for more than a week .

The art studio lost power, so she volunteered to open her Rohnert Park home to 17 college students on Monday after nearly 200,000 Sonoma County residents evacuated their homes over the past weekend. end of October. Students were near or in evacuation zones in Santa Rosa, without power, dodging the smoky air outside, their routines disrupted without school.

“I told them, come to my studio (home), we’ll sketch,” said Chen, who taught art locally for 14 years. “Then we came up with the idea of ​​doing something for the firefighters because we really appreciate what they do for us.”

The sketches resulted in six 10-hour days of work on 15 canvases to form an 8½-foot-wide, 6-foot-tall painting titled “Together Above All.” Various images of bucolic Sonoma County vineyards juxtaposed with working firefighters were incorporated into the painting. Students aged 12 to 17 said painting at Chen’s house that week helped ease their anxiety and express their gratitude to the more than 5,000 firefighters who battled the Kincade blaze.

“It really helped distract us from the fires, and we were kind of more interested in our art and our painting,” said Emma Chen, a 15-year-old student at Maria Carrillo High School who evacuated to Petaluma during the fire. “(Yang Chen) told all the parents that if they needed a place to send their children, they could help with the painting.”

Working on art is meditative, said Yang Chen, who is not related to Emma Chen. Especially in times of distress.

“When you’re painting or drawing, you’re kind of in the zone. You think of nothing else, time passes. That’s why I really love art, it gives peace,” she said.

The central image of the large painting is a bright blue sky and rolling green vineyard with the word “love” folded across the fields, representing the two-story LOVE sign that survived the Tubbs fire at Paradise Ridge Winery. A doe and a fawn roam freely in a field of poppies.

The idyllic scene is framed in a heart by water spraying from firefighters’ hoses into the wildfire coming from the corners. The bottom canvases show additional firefighting scenes and, on the right, neighbors standing in front of a house and saluting fire engines.

“They create art to show people’s love,” Yang Chen said of his students. “I really like that.”

Many of her students have studied art with her since they were young. Cody Reilly, who is also a 15-year-old sophomore at Maria Carrillo High School, studied art with Yang Chen for eight years.

“Our teacher, she doesn’t feel like a teacher. She feels more like an older sister to us since we’ve known her for so long,” said Reilly, who painted the glowing forest fire at the top of the group painting.

The week of October 28, as they worked on the painting, the fire at Kincade escalated and Reilly became concerned for the Windsor friends and the fate of their homes. He and Emma Chen also worried about falling behind in one of their toughest classes, advanced-level chemistry. When they returned to school, their chemistry teacher rearranged their class schedule to catch up.

“We put a lot of effort into our schoolwork to catch up on what we missed during that time,” said Emma Chen, who painted a firefighter and the deer.

Rachel Ding, 13, said working long days on the painting was a good experience bonding with other students.

“There was a lot of teamwork because we had to figure out who would do which parts and how it would feel together until we loved it as one piece,” the Rincon eighth-grader said. Valley Middle School.

There were times when they had to start a section over, like when some students painted firefighters in a different style and it clashed, Yang Chen recalled. But the students would learn and persist.

During painting sessions, parents would often stop by Yang Chen’s home in Rohnert Park to drop off a pizza or cook a meal for the teacher and her 17 focused students. They worked consecutively from October 28 to November 3 and finished on November 9.

“It gives the kids a big boost and motivation so they can be more proactive in their future to get involved in their community and use their skills. They think, ‘I can do something to inspire, something bigger than myself’? said Forest Huang, a parent from Santa Rosa whose 12-year-old daughter also worked on the painting.

“They have a very good relationship with the teacher. The teacher always says, “I treat these children like my own children”? Huang said.

The painting was donated to Windsor City Hall in a Nov. 20 ceremony attended by Chen and his students. Students are now fundraising online at to send a copy of the chart to each of the 506 fire stations from across California and other western states to fight the Kincade fire. .

“We want to show our appreciation to all the firefighters who fought so hard in the Kincade fire. Two years ago we were very affected by the Tubbs fire and it was truly devastating. We are so happy that there are now so many firefighters helping us protect our community,” Ding said.

Mildred D. Field