Retired Police Lieutenant Answers Call to Help Fire Victims from His Art Studio

As flames engulfed Sonoma County, Tom Swearingen picked up his brush and started working on an art series of 365 roses - one for each day of the year - to remind us that, for many, the struggle continues long after the fires are out.

In the early morning hours of October 9, retired Santa Rosa Police lieutenant Tom Swearingen was awakened by his wife, who had been rousted from sleep by pings of Nixle alerts and blasts of propane tanks exploding. The North Bay Fires had turned the night sky a glowing bright orange, and evacuations were ordered up to the edge of Swearingen’s neighborhood in Santa Rosa.

“I’ve never been more frustrated in my life,” said Swearingen of his inability as a civilian to tend to public safety during those first hours of the fires and in the weeks to come.

“They’re doing whatever they can,” he said of first responder efforts, “and we’re just sitting here watching it.” He added that, while being a police officer is just one part of his identity, the fires “brought it out more than anything before.”

Although living in an advisory evacuation area, Swearingen and his wife, former Petaluma police officer and SSU Criminology professor Margaret Swearingen, “chose to hunker down for days” at home and “were set to leave at the first sight of flames.”

It’s been 10 years since Swearingen retired from the police force, and now he works as a painter in his home studio, creating playful photorealistic works that require what appears to be painstaking service to detail. Having felt for some time that selling his artwork was becoming less interesting to him, the ravages of the fires revealed a new avenue of painting: a pledge to create 365 roses to raise funds for the relief effort and the commitment to post one rose a day for the next year on his blog and social media.

His decision to spread out the publication of his works over a year was deliberate, if not symbolic, “as a reminder we’re not done,” said Swearingen. Long after “the news cycles have changed” and those less affected are ready to “move on,” the needs of those who’ve lost everything will continue, he continued. And so he aims to “keep this in front of people for a year.”

Several of Swearingen’s close friends lost homes in the fires, and he feels deep sympathy for everyone affected. Although his sale of 365 paintings has yielded a donation of $34,540 to the Redwood Credit Union’s North Bay Fire Relief Fund, he believes the hardest recovery to make will not be a financial one, but emotional. 

“It’s not ‘just stuff.’ You can’t go down to CVS and replace it,” he says, citing, as an example of irreplaceable objects, the “crappy ceramic dinosaur” his son made growing up that sits on display in his home.

Through his 365-days of roses – or “Roses of Resilience” plan, Swearingen is asking buyers to name their paintings. The first painting in the series was named “570 JeanMarie” in honor of the house where he and his wife raised their two sons.

While the Swearingens have, years ago, moved away from that home, the location still holds many memories for them. 570 Jean Marie Drive, in the Larkfield neighborhood, did not survive the Tubbs fire.

Swearingen works diligently, even painting through our phone interview, to create his roses. Having spent many years in a “safety-first” occupation, he appreciates “being on the other step” of life in which aesthetics matter. “Making the world feel like it’s something you want to be in feels good,” he says.

But “it’s hard to focus on aesthetics when you’re worried about surviving the night,” he adds, vividly aware of the dichotomy of experience in his professions, the fires and in life.

While Swearingen replicates the look of actual roses, he has to reinterpret some of the image from his imagination. The roses from which he paints often have wilting leaves that wouldn’t look good in the painting.

When asked if his job is to improve on reality, Swearingen answers good-humoredly, “I’m trying.”