Two Craft Artists Reflect on Coming Back from a Fire

If you’re a studio artist whose shop or studio is hit by fire, what’s key to coming back?

You’ll salvage what, if anything, can be saved. And, when the smoke clears and the shock recedes, you will begin to recover.

That’ll be a process — one that is emotional as much as professional (rebuilding your business and income) and physical (rebuilding your space, or securing and equipping a new one).

What’s the process of emotional recovery like? What are keys to making it work, so that you can come back from a fire?

In July 2007, an evening fire consumed the five-story barn in upstate New York that Brandon Phillips had turned into the shop for his original-design furniture business. One morning that same month, custom furniture maker Christine Enos  and her husband Tucker Houlihan lost their shop when a restored mill complex, where they rented space, burned to the ground.

Brandon and Christine have recovered, and are making furniture again. Christine and Tucker were able to recover from their shop fire, by working full- or part-time at teaching jobs while they equipped a smaller workspace in the building where they live. Brandon rented a temporary workspace and was shipping furniture three weeks after the disaster.

Here are the keys they cite to their process of coming back:

List everything. Do this while things are fine — so that if a disaster should strike, you have a record of everything damaged or lost. List everything, down to the smallest items. Also, make sure you can document your income. If you’ll be making an insurance claim, this is also key. After a disaster strikes, “it’s really hard to remember all those things,” says Christine.

Connect to community. The craft-arts community came through to help. Christine received a loan from the Craft Emergency Relief Fund, and a friend organized a benefit auction. The morning after Brandon’s fire, people from the Mennonite community where he lives “started showing up, wanting to help,” he says. About 20 volunteers helped a hired crew rebuild, though in time Brandon decided to move to a fully sprinklered building nearby.

“Belong to whatever community you can,” Brandon advises. “It’s amazing how these can come together when you need them.”

Give yourself time. You may want to jump right back into rebuilding, acquiring replacement equipment, the whole process — but allow time and space to grieve your loss. “You can very quickly get yourself into serious debt, just running on instinct,” Brandon advises.

“I guess from all outward appearances, we’re back to where we need to be,” he adds today. “But a lot of things ... will take years.”

To learn more:

American Psychological Association. “The Road to Resilience.” A guide to help survivors of traumatic events develop and use a personal strategy for enhancing resilience.

Resources for Dealing with the Effects of Trauma on this site has a listing of organizations and websites where you can seek more information and assistance.