Artist creates beauty in the ashes after deadly California fire

IN THE aftermath of the deadliest fire in California history last fall, it was difficult for anyone in the mountain town of Paradise to find hope in the ashes.

With at least 85 people dead and more than 80 per cent of the homes in Paradise destroyed, the area resembled a war zone, said Shane Edwards, 42, who returned home to find that the only thing standing was his charred brick fireplace.

“The destruction was overwhelming, everywhere you looked the story was the same,” he said. “People had lost everything.”

When Edwards posted a picture of his fireplace on Facebook, one of his good friends, Shane Grammer, a Los Angeles artist, noticed it. But Grammer saw something that nobody else did: a blank canvas.

Grammer, 46, asked if he could paint something on the hearth and chimney to help people see beyond the burned building, to see that people like him cared – that Paradise could be a place of beauty again.

Shane Grammer (L) and Shane Edwards after Grammer finished painting a mural on Edwards’s burned-out fireplace in Paradise, California

Edwards agreed, and Grammer drove up with a truck full of spray paint and spent three hours creating a mural image of a woman in black and white.

“It was emotional to paint the mural, knowing that so many friends had lost their homes,” said Grammer, who was born and raised in Chico, about 15 miles from Paradise. He works as a freelance artist in the theme-park industry.

After Grammer photographed his finished work on New Year’s Day, Edwards posted the pictures on a community Facebook page for people who had lost their homes in the wildfire.

He wasn’t sure how it would be received by his neighbours, who were picking up the pieces of their lives. As it turned out, residents of Paradise saw it exactly as Grammer intended it.

“What courage to rise up and make such beauty out of a difficult situation!” one woman commented.

“Absolutely stunning,” wrote another.

“Looks like [the] singer Madonna when she was younger,” another commenter observed.

Once Grammer realised Edwards’s neighbours liked it, he wanted to do more. He felt a pull to go back.

“While I was there to paint the fireplace, so many people had told me their own stories,” Grammer recalled. “I went home emotionally exhausted from what I’d heard. It was heartbreaking. So I put an announcement on Facebook that I’d be coming back if anybody had something left from the fire that they’d like to have painted.”

People started responding, asking him to go to their homes and paint in the ashes. He said he would be honoured. So far he’s done 12, many of them both stunning and haunting.

And he sprayed the image of a sleeping woman on one resident’s burned pickup truck.

Grammer also did a portrait of an 84-year-old woman, Helen Pace, who died in her mobile home during the fire. Then he painted the likeness of a girl on a faux rock wall.

“Having Shane come and use his gift has been such a blessing,” said Darby, who said the congregation is meeting in Chico until they can rebuild in Paradise.

Nicole Weddig, a registered nurse who went to high school with Grammer, invited him to paint the remnants of a wall that ringed her front yard. Everything else owned by Weddig, her husband, Greg, and their nine-year-old daughter, Eleanor, was incinerated in the fire. The family is living in a fifth-wheel trailer parked at a friend’s home in Chico, wondering if they’ll ever recover from their sadness, said Weddig.

“Not only did our home burn down, we also lost our community,” she said.

She added that schools have relocated, and in her daughter’s class of 24 students, 10 families are no longer there. Some have moved away, but she doesn’t know what happened to all of them.

“Where did they go? Do they have a roof over their heads and food on the table?” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

When Weddig told Grammer to paint whatever he liked on her wall, he decided to do a portrait of Eleanor from a Facebook photo taken when she was three.

Painting her portrait, he said, “I felt like I was walking on emotional glass.”

Weddig was moved to tears when she drove up the hill to Paradise and saw her daughter’s sunny face shining through the black rubble.

“Her expression is so hopeful and happy – it felt right for our girl to be home smiling, there with what was left of the house we’d brought her home to when she was a newborn,” she said. – Text and Photo by The Washington Post