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Reduced to ashes: Northern Ireland -born sculptor's grief as California wildfires destroy lifetime's work

By Michelle Weir

A renowned Northern Ireland artist has told how his life's work went up in smoke after devastating fires ravaged America's west coast.

Clifford Rainey, an award-winning glass sculptor, saw his studio destroyed by the flames which swept through Napa county in California last month.

The 69-year-old, who is originally from Whitehead in Co Antrim, has been living in Napa for the past 26 years.

Trying to come to terms with the devastating loss, Clifford said: "The fire took all the works that I have made and collected for myself."

As well as the sculptures, he lost moulds, drawings and paintings, plus precious mementoes from home.

Clifford's grandfather Robert Orr was a cabinet maker from Jordanstown, and Clifford lovingly carried his tools to California with the intention of making casts of each as a lasting tribute to his ancestor's craftsmanship.

Clifford had also been storing some of his own most precious creations - which cannot be replaced - as an investment for his pension age.

The sculptor, who has enjoyed an illustrious career, has exhibited in some of the most prestigious galleries and museums in the world, including the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and in Switzerland, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Canada and across the United States.

He has taught art and sculpture at nine art schools and colleges in Britain and America.

He moved to California to take up a university post, and is Glass Programme Chair and Professor of Fine Art at the California College of Art in Oakland.

Last month's wildfire, one of California's worst, claimed the lives of more than 40 people.

Some 20,000 people fled Napa and two other counties and a state of emergency was declared. A combination of dry weather and strong winds fuelled the destruction.

Recalling the horrific experience, Clifford, who lives with his partner Rachel Riser, a floral artist, said he was alerted by a phone call.

He said: "Rachel and I were sleeping. It was 10.30pm or 11pm at night. When we looked out the window we could see it.

"We just threw anything we could into the car and got out of there.

"It was a really windy night, 45 to 50mph winds."

He made the decision to dash back to the property and raced into the house and grabbed some drawings from his college days in Northern Ireland, two books from his more than 1,000-volume library, two pillows upholstered from pieces of a prized Turkish rug he'd purchased at a souk in Istanbul, and his laptop.

He raced back down the hill and took refuge, first in the car park of a primary school and then at a friend's house.

Clifford said that the wildfire raged for a week, adding: "I had never seen anything like it. It was huge. It was pretty dynamic."

Once the fires were finally extinguished, he surveyed in horror the charred remains of his home and studio.

He said: "State came on site and instructed demolition crews to take everything to the ground. Total cleanse."

The couple have lost all their clothes and personal possessions, as well as items from his most important collections which he had set aside to sell during his retirement.

Clifford had been working on a new sculpture "evoking the Statue of Liberty" to be made entirely from glass bottles.

However, he has been encouraged to find a spanner which had belonged to his grandfather among the devastation and he is convinced that he could make further discoveries.

Determined to remain upbeat and to pick up the pieces, he says that he is now "looking at a clean slate ready for a new journey" assisted by what he has described as a "great, generous gathering of friends to help salvage charred fragments of the past".

"We have a really good set of friends. Everybody rallied," he said.

"People have given us furniture and gift vouchers to buy clothes. We are trying to get finance sorted out to rebuild. We are keeping well and living in a hotel. It is just a matter of starting again. I am starting to make new work to make a living."

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