Thursday November 2, 2017 | by Andrew Page

Clifford Rainey, who lost everything in Northern California wildfires, to make drawings out of a charred landscape

On Sunday night, October 8th, at 10:30 PM, artist and former chair of the glass program at the California College of Art Clifford Rainey and his partner, Rachel Riser, were awakened by a neighbor's frantic telephone call warning them that a wind-driven wildfire had kicked up and was blazing toward their shared Napa, California, residence. They needed to get out immediately. "We were very close to where the fires started so there had been no warning. We could see the wall of flames on the next hillside so we just threw whatever we had into the car to get out of there," Rainey told the Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet in a telephone interview from the hotel room he was staying in the weeks after evacuating. "The next day we found out the house had gone totally but were still hoping my studio would survive, which was down the hill a bit from the house. A couple days later, a neighbor called to tell us it was gone." 

Rainey has been slowly processing the magnitude of what he's lost. The house with all his and Riser's possessions was destroyed, but insurance would help rebuild. Far more devastating than the destruction of his home and studio was the complete loss of all the artwork on the property -- not only Rainey's two-years worth of work for an upcoming exhibition, but his archive of drawings of every project he'd ever done in his career, as well as a collection of his strongest work he was planning to donate to a museum.

"In a nutshell, we just got wiped," said a stunned and somber Rainey reached shortly before he and Rachel had found the rental where they've moved as they begin the long process of rebuilding. "I'd been saving all my better pieces all boxed up for the future in a shipping container, along with work I'd made for SOFA, as well as all of my drawings and all my prints. I can’t get my head around it."

As news of his catastrophic losses spread, he's been inundated by nonstop telephone calls. Each concerned friend, acquaintance, collector wanted to offer solace, or financial support, but the process of retelling the details and reliving the traumatic events became draining as Rainey himself struggled to figure out the next steps.

Into the breach stepped his longtime dealer David Austin, formerly of Imago Galleries and currently head of Austin Art Projects. "Accepting condolences is exhausting," explained Austin in a telephone conversation with Glass. The son of two therapists, the dealer was in a unique position to offer both personal and professional advice, recognizing a friend in need of both. He also knew how awkward it must be for Rainey to accept financial assistance: "He's not a hat-in-hand kind of guy," Austin said.

"I’m being a bit of a cheerleader with him," he continued. "I said look, Clifford, this is a beginning. Right now, this is an open wound -- it's the day after. But in a couple of years, it’s a scar, it doesn’t hurt anymore, and you're going to be so much stronger because you went through it. This terrible thing is going to be an opportunity to show people who you are ... what is important for you, emotionally, and for people to see, is that you are going to roll your sleeves up and make work."

Austin, who's well-acquainted with Rainey's exacting process of making work, and the sometimes excruciating wait for a finished body of sculptural works, thought about the drawings that are an integral part of Rainey's process. "I told him, 'You've lost all your historical drawing, but you could recreate the drawings of many of the pieces out there in the world, or you could do something that relates directly to the event, or you could do drawings about what you want to make in the future." Austin was thinking of a way the artist could restart the process of making, both for his own emotional well-being as well as a way to reciprocate the generosity of those looking to help Rainey rebuild. 

"You should have heard the change in his voice," he said, adding that Rainey had been mentally and physically exhausted but he detected a new energy after that conversation. "Clifford called me a day later, from the property and said 'I've made charcoal drawings for years and I'm standing in a field of charcoal!'"  After opening the shipping containers that had stored his artwork and discovering the remains of his works, Rainey thought to also add bits of the destroyed glass to his new body of work. "The drawings will have the charcoal of the fire, and may also have collage elements," explained Austin. "Bits of glass from his burned work that had been in storage." 

Austin, who emphasizes he is making "zero commission" and acting only as a friend, is in the process of reaching out to those who want to support Rainey at this critical time. In particular, he's thinking of the collector who might have always wanted to purchase one of Rainey's works, who might want to commission a piece now. Or someone who simply wants to give a gift. "It's very important to me that this is not a commercialized thing," says the dealer. "If you want to help Clifford, he wants to give you something back. It's not a sale, there won't be an invoice ... but the support people provide to Clifford now is going to enable him to make his drawings, rebuild his studio, and to make the next sculptures."

There is a crowd-funding site set up by Duncan House, a fellow professor at California College of Art, where people have so far donated a total of more than $10,000 toward covering the costs of Rainey and Riser's rebuilding and relocating ( A similar crowd-sourced fundraiser site has been set up in the United Kingdom on behalf of Rainey's friends and colleagues in the Chelsea Art Club, and over 200 people have donated to raise over $20,000.

For those art collectors or friends of Rainey who might want to support the artist with a significant gift, or perhaps to discuss a future commission project, Austin is taking calls on his personal phone at 760-636-2834 or can be reached via email. Donations can also be mailed directly to Rainey by using the following address: 

Clifford Rainey
2283 Monticello Road
Napa, CA 94558

Austin likes to quote his therapist father, who used to say that people will never know your character when things are going well, only in the darkest hour. "That's where Clifford is," he says. "With the support people are showing, Clifford will have two lives -- before and after the fire."

Austin, who represents some of the top artists in the field, says Rainey occupies a unique position, citing "the scarcity of Clifford's work, and his insistence on doing everything with the work with his own hands." The surviving Rainey sculptures are safe in museums and in some of the top collections such as the Saxe and Benaroya holdings. Austin sees his opportunity to help Rainey at this pivotal moment as a "privilege."

"Clifford is equipped as well or better than any artist in the glass movement to respond to what just happened,"  he says.

GLASS: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for 35 years.