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Zentner wanted to capture the new light falling on the once familiar landscapes of the forests near her home in the charcoal and oil pastel drawing, “In the Wings”.
Photo/Shelley Zentner

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — When artist Shelley Zentner evacuated from her home in Christmas Valley last summer as the rapidly growing Caldor Fire made its way through the Tahoe Basin, she had no idea this worm what she would return. His family left with as many personal effects and works of art as possible.

Three weeks later, Zentner returned home unscathed. The forest where she walked daily for inspiration and meditation, however, was irreparably altered by the fire, which burned 221,835 acres, destroyed 1,003 structures and damaged 81 others.

“We didn’t even feel like we could unpack properly because the fire was still burning. We didn’t know if we were going to have to go back. This safety and security that you take for granted, which also felt very threatened,” Zentner says. “I was thinking of all the people who lost their homes and all the animals who were burned. There were feelings of guilt and that maybe it wasn’t the safest place anymore. It took a while to process these feelings and the way I do it is to get out there and start drawing.

When the forests reopened, Zentner found a burn scar from a localized fire near her home and began sifting through the charred remains.

“I have always loved working with charcoal. As I scratch in the wood, my hands are black and there’s this familiar presence of earthiness on my fingertips and I thought, “I have to make some designs out of this.” I felt the light come back to me. That spark of inspiration,” Zentner recalls.

Zentner has used charcoal, oil pastels and oil paint to create a collection that captures the battered landscape that was once so familiar. She noted the light filtering through the scorched trees and the sharp reflections and algae blooms in the river, which was flowing lower and warmer due to the drought.

“I think it goes back to our earliest ancestors. Early humans making marks in caves. Paleolithic cave paintings and drawings. They were made with charcoal and earth pigments. It’s that primal instinct to do in response to what’s going on around you and within you,” Zentner notes.

Zentner named her collection of drawings and paintings “Call and Response,” a nod to the music she noticed in the landscape but also the massive effort of firefighters and other first responders. She donated a portion of her profits to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, which supports the families of deceased firefighters.

“Nature is always transforming, and this was my way of coming to terms with that transformation around me,” adds Zentner.

Check out more of Zentner’s work at

Editor’s note: This story appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Tahoe magazine.