In November 2016, a few days after the Chimney Tops 2 wildfire blazed through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and nearby Gatlinburg, 10th-grader Stanton Sweeney and his dad, Bob Sweeney, made their way back to check on their home in the Timber Ridge community. Bob and his wife, Stephanie, had bought the cabin five years earlier but had just moved their family full-time from Memphis that summer, fulfilling the couple’s long-held dream of living in the mountains.
Bob recalled the moment in an interview recorded in March 2020: “Just in an instant there it was—it was just a chimney and, you know, you know, three floors that had pancaked down and what was left of it.”
He went on to tell how the two of them looked together at the ashes that had been their home and belongings. Bob was especially hurt at the loss of Stanton’s Eagle Scout medal, which had arrived just a few days before (and which was later recovered).
Taking it all in, he was reminded of a passage from the Book of Job. He cleared a spot in the still-smoking ruins and knelt to give thanks that the family had been spared and ask for strength in the time to come.
Then Stanton suggested to his dad that they go check on the other homes in the area so they could report back to the neighbors.
The Chimney Tops 2 fire was the deadliest wildfire in the eastern United States since the 1940s—burning more than 17,000 acres, killing 14 people, injuring more than 200, and displacing thousands.
Sweeney’s memories of that time—along with those of both his parents—are among those preserved in Rising from the Ashes, an ambitious project led by UT Libraries to document the fires and their aftermath and help those grieving their losses begin to heal—first by telling their stories and then by seeing them reflected through art.
HISTORY HAPPENING AROUND US
Laura Romans, associate professor and manuscripts archivist in the UT Libraries’ Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives, was part of the team that planned and carried out the project.
“One of our collection strengths is the Great Smoky Mountains—the history, the culture, the people, the evolution of that area,” she says. “And we’re of course regularly documenting the past, documenting history, but we’re also of course thinking of history happening around us.
“It was a few years after the wildfires that there started to be some conversations in the libraries about what we could do to document that event. The idea of doing oral histories came up . . . and we felt that would be a way to really document the individual experiences. There was a lot of support from administration for the project.”
The libraries partnered with Gatlinburg’s Anna Porter Public Library and the City of Gatlinburg for Rising from the Ashes, which launched in August 2019 and collected 139 interviews.
“Anna Porter Public Library had already done some of their own oral history interviews in the months right after the wildfires, and that provided a good foundation for the project,” says Romans. “And they were excited to work with us and expand.”
She was among those who conducted the interviews. “It could be really difficult,” she recalls. “A lot of people had some really harrowing experiences. I felt honored to be a part of it and to not only be a person who would listen to these people’s stories, but to do the work to preserve it and to make it available for other people—either now or a hundred years from now.
“It felt like a gift—and I think a lot of people on our team felt this way too.”
In addition to residents who had experienced the fires firsthand, they interviewed government officials, journalists, teachers, and health care providers who worked with those affected by the fires, as well as scientists studying the environmental impact. The collection went online in November 2021, on the fifth anniversary of the fires.
The project’s second phase—a collection of art works inspired by the stories—was undertaken later, but it was part of the plan all along.
“From the beginning we wanted to do it in a way that gives back to the community, and where we are partnering with the community,” says Romans. “And I think too that we could also show how archives and collections—things that we preserve—can be used to create something new.”
Three well-known cartoonists and illustrators, all UT graduates—Paige Braddock, Danny Wilson, and Marshall Ramsey—created works of art inspired by the stories they heard. Two additional drawings were donated by former Knoxville News Sentinel cartoonist Charlie Daniel. Their work was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts through their Our Town program, which funds projects that strengthen communities through artistic and creative engagement.
Some of the works were displayed at Anna Porter Public Library in an exhibition titled Wildfire Recovery through Art and Public Memory, which ran throughout August 2022. All 40 are displayed in an online exhibition on the UT Libraries website.
Like the stories that inspired them, the works cover a wide range of experiences: images of the fires themselves, the experience of evacuation and escape, the heroism of first responders and ordinary people, the lives lost, and the aftermath. Several focus on the renewal of nature and gratitude for the kindness people experienced following the fires.
“They did such beautiful work,” Romans says. “Everything they did surpassed expectations.”
For all three of the artists who took part in the project, the work reflects deep personal connections—not only to East Tennessee but also to their own experiences.
Paige Braddock, a 1985 BFA graduate who got her start in cartooning at the Daily Beacon, interned at the Knoxville Journal, and worked at the Oak Ridger, is now chief creative officer of Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates. She’s best known for her comic strip Jane’s World, which was the country’s first gay-themed comic to be nationally distributed, and as creator of the children’s book series Peanut, Butter, and Crackers, whose third volume was released by Viking over the summer.
Braddock grew up hearing about fires from her father, who worked fighting wildfires in the 1970s. She now lives in northern California, an area frequently threatened by wildfires.
Not long before she began work with the project, Braddock experienced a close call of her own. She and her wife, Evelyn, were evacuating in separate cars, their pets divided between them, when flames approached as they were stuck in stopped traffic on I-80. “We didn’t think we were anywhere close to the fires, and all of a sudden there it was,” she says. The traffic was eventually diverted around the fire, she recalls, but for 15 or 20 minutes “you’re trapped, your car’s not moving, you’re considering What if I had to get out and run?”
What Braddock calls “that overwhelming sense of fear” is captured in an image that shows a massive wall of fire and smoke enveloping the trees along a riverbank, all of it reflected in the river.
“Having experienced fires out here made working on that project feel a little more personal even though I wasn’t affected by that specific fire,” Braddock says. “Listening to the oral histories—I could only listen to a little bit at a time.”
An especially moving drawing shows a dog alone at home, lit by flames through a window. It’s based on the story of Betsy Jackson, who recounted that she was at work when the fires struck but her husband was at home and unwilling to leave. She eventually persuaded him to bring their pets to safety—an act that may have saved his life as well as those of the animals, since their home was destroyed soon after. Jackson later contacted Braddock through social media with a message and a photo of herself with her dog. “That was really touching,” Braddock says.
For Knoxville-based illustrator Danny Wilson, the stories of the wildfires were close to home—literally. “I’m the local guy,” he laughs. Wilson graduated in 1984 with a BFA. In addition to digital concept work for clients that include Disney, Amazon, Coca-Cola, and Taylor Swift, he has created branded illustrations for UT Athletics and posters for events including UT’s 1998 national championship.
Wilson said he was uncertain about the project at first. “I’d never done anything like this—I was really unsure what it was going to be like.” But he was quickly won over by the opportunity to help people see their own stories in a new light.
Wilson, along with Ramsey, was at the opening of the exhibition at Anna Porter Public Library, and the value of the work they’d done was confirmed in the conversations he had with people there.
“I think it helped capture the emotions—even the confusion—and the different things that happen to people. And I think people seemed genuinely touched to see those things. Any time you put a visual with a voiced dimension of a story, I think it helps people engage better.”
His work of a cat named Topper, drawn from the stories of Adesola Odunayo and Leslie Wereszczak of UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine, is one of his favorites—in part because of the last-minute addition of a pair of gloved hands.
Badly burned after bolting into the woods during the fire, Topper—along with 18 other cats, a dog, and two pigs—was rescued and sent to the college’s veterinary medical center after the fires. Topper was reunited with his family when they saw his photo in a social media post, and after a grueling month-long recovery he was able to return home.
“Originally, I was just going to show Topper hooked up to the IV, but then I thought That doesn’t really tell the story. I put those hands in there to show the people who cared for all those animals,” said Wilson.
Marshall Ramsey graduated from UT in 1991 with a business degree—and, like Braddock, he started his cartooning career at the Daily Beacon. Ramsey grew up in Georgia and lives in Mississippi, but he has a long family history of vacationing in the Smokies—there’s a photo from the 1930s of his grandparents in front of Chimney Tops—and he owns a cabin near Gatlinburg (which was spared in the fires). A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, he is known not only as an editorial cartoonist but also as editor-at-large for the nonprofit nonpartisan news and media company Mississippi Today, the author of numerous books, and the host of public radio and TV programs.
Ramsey found an especially strong connection in the recordings of the Sweeney family, and two of his works are based on their stories. One shows Stephanie discovering her grandmother’s cast iron skillets in the ashes of their cabin. The other grew out of his admiration for Bob’s strength. “Every time I’m having a bad day, I watch Bob’s video,” he says.
While working on the project, he learned that Bob had died in 2021 and got in touch with his son. Ramsey’s drawing “Bob Sweeney Prays” is based on a photo Sweeney snapped of his father on that trip back to the cabin, which he sent to Ramsey after their first talk. Its caption is taken from Bob’s recording: “We just said a prayer for thankfulness that we still had each other, that we still had the means to move forward and to make a better path forward out of this . . . . ”
Talking with survivors at the opening of the exhibition at Anna Porter Public Library, Ramsey says, he was impressed with the range of emotions he heard—including those who were still angry that the warnings hadn’t come earlier and a woman who told him about the loneliness of being the first person in her area to rebuild. He compares them to the people he interviewed following Hurricane Katrina: “The type of resilience I saw in that storm I saw in Gatlinburg.
“Especially in a time when so much seems to be hopeless,” he says, “you see what the human spirit can do.”
Kaila Clark, who directs the Smoky Mountain Collection at Anna Porter Public Library, helped put together the exhibition there and the opening reception. She shares Ramsey’s admiration for the stories that make up the project and the value of the work. “I’m passionate about history and all about telling the stories—about the good and the bad, the pain and happiness of it. And to be part of this and to see how people responded, it was very touching, very moving.
“Our goal was to help people heal and reflect on how far the mountain community has come since November 2016. Given the response I’ve witnessed, it seems the art exhibit has helped bring closure. People have even said that the art exhibit in a way has been a memorial, so it was wonderful to see that. That’s how we were able to communicate with the community,” she says.
A catalog of the exhibition, Rising from the Ashes: The Chimney Tops 2 Wildfires in Memory and Art, was published in the fall by the University of Tennessee Press.
A HUGE BLESSING
Sweeney is now a senior at UT studying finance with a marketing collateral. His quick laugh and easygoing nature blend the confidence of youth and the thoughtful insights of someone who’s experienced more than most people his age.
Looking back on the fires, he focuses not on the difficulty but on the help his family received—from friends and strangers, from unexpected sources like Dolly Parton, and from UT, where he qualified for the Pledge Scholarship and found support as a first-generation student.
“UT has been ever-present in helping me, whether it be financially or with the mental side—it’s been huge, reaching out to me and making sure I’m OK.”
On campus, he was drawn to Sigma Chi by its focus on philanthropy and community service. He’s managed the chapter’s social media accounts, which led to work with the Interfraternity Council as a social media advisor and recruiting captain—all in addition to taking part in professional associations and working full time. He’s remained in touch with Ramsey and values his perspective as an alumnus.
After the fires, the family relocated to a different area near Gatlinburg. Sweeney’s mother continues her work as a glass artist making jewelry and household items, and his younger brother is in seventh grade and considering following in his footsteps at UT. “I about have him convinced,” Sweeney laughs. His two older sisters both live in West Tennessee, and the family remains close-knit despite the distance.
Especially since his father’s death, Sweeney says, he’s grateful for the family’s involvement in the oral history project. “It was interesting to see how far we’ve come since then—it feels like a lifetime ago.
“And now to have it in a medium we can look back on—that ended up being a huge blessing for all of us.”