HAMILTON – On the morning of the last day of July, Pamela Caughey wrote a newsletter to subscribers of her website.
There were pictures of her new paintings – airy, patterned abstracts – and notes about her upcoming shows around Montana and Wyoming. It has the cheerful tone of a full month's worth of summer ahead.
Caughey, a resident of Roaring Lion Road, which heads west of Highway 93 South and winds up toward the mountains until you reach her house of 11 years, was working in her studio later that afternoon when her husband, Byron, told her the Forest Service was ordering an evacuation.
"No, I'm not going anywhere," she recalled saying. "I'm tired of evacuations." They had been told to evacuate twice before in their time living in the Bitterroot.
Around 2 that afternoon, people in the valley had started to spot puffs of smoke farther up the mountains, where there are popular hiking trails. By 3 p.m., when Caughey stepped outside, the flames were visible a mile away.
She, her husband and their son Kalen and Caughey's sister-in-law Claire, who were visiting from out of state, had 45 minutes to load their three vehicles with whatever they deemed most important.
Caughey was working on large pieces for a solo exhibition at Helena's Holter Museum of Art in January, and in retrospect, she wonders why she thought that those pieces were the most important thing to take.
"My family knew I had a show coming up so they helped me get my work out," she said recently.
Caughey also grabbed her decades' worth of portfolios and sketchbooks, but set them down in the garage to move some other items out. She never remembered to pick them up.
By that evening, the Caugheys knew their house was probably gone. A time-lapse video from a streaming nest camera across the valley shows the Roaring Lion blooming from a few gusts of smoke to a churning skyscape in only a few hours' time. The fire grew to a peak of 8,700 acres and destroyed 16 homes.
"We did lose two pets, which was very hard, but we could've lost a family member," she said recently.
"There could've been people hiking that day that didn't get out."
Three months later, Caughey has finally set up her studio in a rented space in the Rocky Mountain Grange building in Hamilton for which her business insurance is paying rent. She remembers almost canceling it until the insurance company talked her out of it.
Her preferred medium, encaustic, is a process-heavy form of painting that's unlike many others. It requires beeswax, resin and pigment. She makes her own beeswax and mixes her own pigment, a toxic substance that requires ventilation. Working with the medium, instantly recognizable because of its smooth, deep finish, takes preparation with pots and pans and griddles, and that's all before she's started painting.
She uses a variety of texturing tools to create her abstract marks: kitchen implements, bicycle chains and more. When she returned to her house after the fire, nothing remained but the foundation and a few random things – the DirecTV dishes somehow survived.
She walked to the spot where her home studio, with all the myriad supplies once sat, and found some of her texture tools, charred but many intact.
"They're different now, they're changed, and I want to do work that incorporates these transformed tools," she said.
She gathered charcoal from the site in small tin cans and is using it for new pieces as "a way of using something that was meaningful for us," she said.
Caughey lost about 12 completed works for the Holter show. Because it took so much time to get her studio up and running, the first works she began to make are monotypes. She heats up a specialized large metal plate and creates a drawing with medium and other tools that can be transferred to Thai Kozo, a thin, delicate paper.
It's a more immediate, emotional kind of painting and drawing, she said, with "a direct connection between me and the paper. Just get it out."
They have titles that allude to the fire. "Running for the Door" references the chaotic feeling when there's "a split second to decide what's the most important thing to you at that moment." Another is called "Our House is Sky." "Nara's Shadow" is named after their missing cat. "Fragility" reduces all the marks she's learned to make to an oval of black scrapings on white paper.
Some are purely black and white, others have accents of deep maroon, and none of the inviting layers and explorative palette that you'd recognize in her work. They do have that immediacy of mark-making, though, and she said it was a "cathartic" way of getting her thoughts down.
She plans on calling the Holter show, "Simply Not." The experience has made her think about the cycles of life, seen in the many circular forms, broken and unbroken, in the new pieces.
Maybe all those belongings she and her husband had acquired up to their 50s were holding them down, she wonders. Maybe "a weight is lifted." Maybe they'll find they're stronger after the "comfortable shell" of their house is gone.
"It's the same way in art. You can rip away that comfort zone and take away all those things," she said. Once you've lost everything, taking risks seems easier. "What have you got to lose?" she asked. "You just lost your home."
She hopes viewers will see the title and ask themselves, "Simply not what?"
In that 45-minute window, she and her family retrieved some very large works in progress, some wood panels measuring 6 feet. She's not sure if she'll continue working on them, or call them finished.
She wonders about the belongings she took. Most of the art they collected or made was left behind.
"I could've grabbed things that were done," she said. She lost years' worth of finished paintings, three of which were in the Missoula Art Museum's Montana Triennial, a statewide survey of contemporary art. She could've just given so many of those pieces away, in retrospect, but now they're ash.
She still has digital reproductions, though. She doesn't dwell on her older work anyway, comparing them to a lost breath.
"It's not like I mourn the loss of a breath. It's the same with the work, it's here, it's gone, I just keep breathing and keep moving on," she said.
The process-oriented part of encaustic painting can perhaps be explained a bit by Caughey's background. She earned a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry and didn't return to study her lifelong love of art until after she had children a master's of fine art. She's done a lot of hard things, she said, but the soul-searching art requires is among the toughest and most rewarding.
"When the work is not authentic or it's not really you, it'll just bug you until you transform it into something you're at peace with," she said.
After the fire, they stayed with friends for a bit and then rented a house. They've since bought a home in Hamilton. The process of starting from scratch is endlessly time-consuming. Daylong meetings with insurance agents. Trips to the store to buy all-new everything: from underwear to knives and plates, much less art supplies. In another newsletter, she admits taking home the little bottles of shampoo from a hotel in case they needed them.
The new studio required new lighting, ventilation and electrical outlets, plus thousands and thousands of dollars' worth of equipment and materials.
"It's hard to describe the fact that there was no time to dwell on what had happened, it was more like how do we just move forward. It is what it is," he said.
She thanked the Forest Service for getting everyone out safely, and all the community members who helped the evacuees. Numerous people have donated items for them, as did the Missoula Art Museum.
"How do you ever give back to a community that's been so generous to you?" she said.
She thinks the loss is especially hard on her husband and the children, ages 27 and 30.
"It's one thing to be in your 20s and 30s and have lost everything that you have memories of. I think that would be a lot harder," she said. They created one of their original products for their company, Voke Tab, a natural energy supplement, in a building on the property.
Her husband had a "real spiritual connection to the property," and it's been really hard. He's a scientist and also a sculptor, and lost work of his own.
"It's kind of devastating to go back there, but you do have to go back there," she said. Decisions need to be made on logging, due to liability issues if dead trees fall.
The site of the house now resembles "a moonscape," she said. They've spent more money having the the dumpsters' worth of debris removed, the land bulldozed and logged, than the land is worth in its current state. Ninety-nine percent of the trees were removed. The DirecTV dishes are still standing. Bulbs have started coming up in the remnants of the garden. Heavy equipment made noises clearing a neighbors' property.
Another neighbor's house near a creek was spared, but the Forest Service land across the road heading farther up the mountain is blackened. "We were so close to the epicenter that even though we'd done a lot of clearing, there was not any chance," she said.
They knew the risks of fire when you live in the woods, and that it's part of the cycle. Next year it will look completely different. They've been told new species will grow in the soil, loosened by the heavy machinery.
At one visit to the property not long after the fire, one of her sons was scouring what used to be a downstairs room and found two containers. Caughey didn't recognize them, and he tossed one to her.
She took the lid off. "I looked inside and it was my parents' ashes," she said. They'd be stored two floors up underneath a bed in memorabilia containers made by the Amish. The house burned around them, but the Japanese tea canisters held through.
She'd written their names on the bottom of the tins. The fire scorched the labels off, but in the scheme of things she wondered if it mattered. They're still with her, after all.
Correction: This article originally misidentified artist Pamela Caughey's sister-in-law, Claire as her daughter-in-law. Caughey also didn't earn a bachelor's degree in art, she earned a master's.