Gregory Roberts’ Sonoma Ash Project: Bridging the gap between tragedy and what comes after

October 2017 brought with it devastating wildfires to California. Two hundred and fifty wildfires reduced sunny Cali to ash and dust, out of which twenty-one of them reduced 245,000 acres to a geographical map of loss. Residential properties were the ones affected most, with gruesome deaths and property damage.


Pure devastation led the residents to try and salvage what they could from their home, even if it was only ash and dust-laden with many untold memories and lost happiness that was worth reminiscing. These remains made their way to Gregory Roberts’ porch in mason jars and plastic bags; some with family pictures, stories and little notes telling him what each of them meant to the victims of the fire.


Gregory Roberts, a ceramicist and professor of studio art at nearby Sonoma State University, came up with the idea of converting the ashes into art. Initially sceptical about his idea (people might not want to collect the smoldering remains of their houses), he launched the ‘Sonoma Ash Project’, after receiving positive feedback from his neighbours. He invited people to send a scoop of ash and promoted the project on Facebook. Over a hundred people responded by leaving their ashes at his door, some with a silvery sheen and others a charcoal grey, each a symbol of what the flames devoured.


Roberts sifts each sample, carefully removing coins, nails and debris, after which he soaks it in water to remove lime. He then dries it and grinds it to a fine dust so it can be effectively incorporated into the glaze for his pottery. The design of the pottery will pay homage to the Fountaingrove Round Barn, a centerpiece of the Sonoma community. Roberts plans to gift each owner a memoir of what they once had, to help them bridge the gap between what happened and what comes next. Hopefully, the love in the air will be thicker than the smoke that was once there.


Image source: Atlas Obscura

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