Paradise Reborn: Beauty in the Midst of Tragedy
On November 18, 2018, what is now known as "Camp Fire", the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California's history, began its blaze in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where a firestorm ensued in the densely populated town of Paradise, taking nearly 19,000 homes, and leaving 86 dead in its wake. With FEMA now on location, the town is just beginning to show signs of clean-up and recovery, a process which is sure to take many years.
Sold Magazine made a trip out from NYC to observe the devastation first-hand. There was wide-spread destruction as far as the eye could see, with only fragments of recognizable structures remaining. But among the chaos of melted plastic and twisted metal, there were unexpected signs of beauty, and maybe even a bit of hope.
"BEAUTY AMONG THE ASHES"
Shane Grammer, a Los Angeles-based artist who grew up in the town of Chico (a college town close to Paradise), felt compelled to action. Growing up in the area, he has at least two dozen childhood friends who lost their homes to the fire. It wasn't until he began seeing their Facebook posts popping up, showing their remains of an errant chimney or a burned-out car, that he realized the extent of the devastation that had taken place.
Grammer, who has always had an interest in graffiti and later street art, felt moved to add some beauty of his own to the town that had lost so much in such a short time.
This wasn't something new to him. Growing up Christian and being part of a greater ministry, he has painted murals in orphanages in Mexico, a church in Peru, and a school in Brazil. For him, there has been a history of this kind of work, in areas where he felt there was a profound need. He has always had a special place in his heart and compassion for places where the locals are struggling in their lives. Paradise was such a place.
And so it was decided.
Together with his wife, the couple drove up to the Sacramento area for Christmas. Armed with cans of Montana 94 (from their transparent line to handle the textures), they headed to Paradise to meet up with local resident and friend Shane Edwards, where he painted the first (and what was to be the ONLY) piece, now known reverently as "Beauty Among the Ashes".
"Beauty Among the Ashes", 5340 Clark Rd
The piece was inspired by an ongoing series that Grammer has been working on, entitled "The Bride". In this case, the "bride" is not as one might imagine of a woman on her wedding day, but rather, it is an allegorical interpretation of the "Song of Solomon" story in the Bible, where the king represents God, and his bride represents humanity. For Grammer, the piece is more than just a beautiful, moody portrait. Rather, it is a connection to something greater, and is a gift to a people who have suffered a great loss.
Three hours later, the first piece was finished, and the couple headed back to L.A., content to leave a part of themselves in the broken town of Paradise. Little did they know the effect the piece would have on the community.
THE PARADISE CAMP FIRE MURAL PROJECT
After a photo of that first wall was posted on the Paradise Camp Fire Facebook page, a sense of hope was felt by many of the residents, as witnessed by the page's comments, who were struck by the poignant beauty of the piece. From there, local media channels contacted Grammer.
"I was struck by how much the people were touched by the piece", says Grammar.
As an artist, he had been wanting to create work his whole life that would connect and move people emotionally. And it happened organically in Paradise. That is when he decided, with the encouragement of his wife, to return for a full week to continue the work that needed to be done. Thankfully, a law firm based out of Sacramento, Hughey Phillips, LLP, offered to cover his expenses, and also provided a photographer, Terence Duffy, to document the work.
Amber & Leland Home, 431 Nadena Way
Before heading back up, he gave a shout-out on Facebook to let the local residents know he would be returning for a week and asking if anyone would want to have their property painted. Eight people responded and he was ready to paint. In all, he has painted 12 portraits to date (including a temporary piece on clear cellophane on the edge of the bluff, which was recently destroyed after a storm). Since being back, he now has about 40 requests, with more inquiries coming in every day.
"Unexpected Hope", 6220 Clark Road
Grammer's Sunday School teacher, Gary Drews, was also his basketball coach and eventually his first boss. It was through Gary that he learned how to work, at his drywall company, all through high school and a few years afterward. Gary’s brother and his wife, Suzy, owned a home that was burned down in the fire. The portrait he painted at their property was one of Suzy's Mom, Helen Pace, who died in the fire.
"It was pretty heavy to do the Helen Pace mural", says Grammar, "because I really wanted to represent her right when the family comes up to see it. Gary came up once it was painted and said it was great and that it was her likeness, that it's an honor to the family. So it was appreciated."
Helen Pace, memorial Mural, 7998 Skyway
The "Eleanor" mural is for a friend of his, Nicole Weddig. She was on the girls' basketball team throughout high school and Grammar was on the boys' team. She was one who reached out after he sent out the invitation on Facebook. It is a portrait of her daughter, looking hopeful, at the age of 3. Sometimes the greatest inspiration can be seen through the eyes of children.
"Eleanor", 5588 Glen Drive
The artwork Grammar created connected with people from the area and it moved them emotionally. He says that he is still processing that fact. "It's honoring and it’s humbling and it's exhilarating that my artwork has encouraged people", acknowledges Grammer.
Now, back in Los Angeles, continuing his work in the theme park industry, Grammer, amid handling interviews and requests to paint at the former homes of residents in Paradise, looks forward to the opportunity to return.
"I would love to go up to give back to Paradise", says Grammer. "I would like to do a cat. I received a call from a couple who lost their animal shelter and all of the animals perished. So many people are asking me to do that. It’s not my passion, but if I did it, I would like to do it for them. Also, it would be great to do one more mural, but take the time and spend two days on it; a woman’s face surrounded by flowers on a bigger space."
For now, the work has been done. Shane Grammer has given part of himself to a community which has endured much loss. He has created a dozen images that inspire hope, a hope that one day the community they loved will be returned.
And for that, we are grateful.