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Art Show Rises From Ashes : Exhibit at gallery in Topanga Canyon is inspired by November inferno and has drawn unusually high community interest.

January 14, 1994|NANCY KAPITANOFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times

There is nothing like a disaster to foster a sense of community.

After the recent Malibu/Calabasasfires, four artist-members of the co-op New Canyon Gallery in Topanga felt a need to bring together the expressions of people who had experienced the maelstrom for all to see.

Instead of organizing just an exhibit of work by gallery members, they opened the juried show to anyone in the greater community who wanted to submit work created in response to the November fires or any fire. Not without a sense of humor, they publicized the "Fires: A Community Art Show" as a "hot item" on bright orange flyers burned around the edges.

The show opens Saturday with a reception from 4 to 8 p.m. Music, storytelling and poetry will take place at the Cypress Cafe next door beginning at 7 p.m.

The gallery is filled with photography, painting, sculpture, mixed-media work and found objects burned or melted beyond recognition. Participants range from people who lost homes to individuals from such communities as Venice and Northridge who were not directly threatened by the fires. A few children and teen-agers also contributed work.

"This will be a forum for the community to find self-expression, to bear witness to one another's experience, to hopefully realize and participate in all kinds of different experiences. And if that's done communally, there will be some kind of healing that takes place," Jody Sibert said. She organized the show with Barbara King, Megan Rice and Nancy Williams.

Sculptor Burt Rashby carved his sweet-faced "Guardian Deity" out of wood. A divine vision of a helicopter, it is an homage to the firefighting helicopter pilots who saved his house in Fernwood as he stood there and watched. When he delivered the piece to the gallery, he told King that he already missed having it in his house and that he felt vulnerable.

Barry Lysaght, who has a woodworking shop in Topanga Canyon, expresses similar feelings in his wood carving "Safe." A firefighter carries a child away from danger.

On a lighter note, photographer Petrie Alexandra of Topanga has before-and-after pictures of a location on Saddle Peak. She had photographed a female model there before the fire. In some shots, a live chicken was included. After the fire, she brought the same model back to the spot. In these shots, the model holds a roasted chicken.

Hadia Finley found the remains of some of her clay pieces in the rubble of her destroyed home in Fernwood. A half-blackened torso stands now on a new wood base. Along with that work and pieces from others are her photographs and journal entries.

Mary Ellen Strote contributed the burned-up mailbox from her tenant's burned-down house in Calabasas. Mariah Woodruff, whose studio is in Topanga Canyon, found metal objects melted into intriguing abstract shapes. These include the small but powerful "Fire Dragon," which she mounted on a base. It came with a "fire opal eye."

The installation "She Lives" is the work of Mary, Eric and Devon Wright of Malibu. Eric, an architect and the grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright, lost all of his drawings in the fire. Devon, Mary and Eric's son, stayed on the property to try to save it. He also managed to take some photographs, which are on view.

The backdrop to "She Lives" is a large aluminum piece, what's left of their incinerated trailer. Included in the altar-like work are a pile of burned and rusted nails, and two pieces found in the rubble that the work commemorates: a small reproduction of an ancient Greek goddess figure and a small stone rune, the meaning of which is renewal. A patch of fresh sod will be watered during the run of the show.

"I think that the found objects are the least predictable element in some ways," Sibert said. "We knew we would pull in a lot of photographs. This is not in any way to trivialize that medium. It's extremely powerful. But in some ways, (a found object) is one of the more raw expressions of the experience, especially when clearly it relates to someone who has suffered damage through the fires."

Sibert, who has made collages and a three-dimensional piece for the show, lives in Venice. She described herself as a "voyeur" during the fire. "I sat on the beach in Venice with my binoculars looking at the hills burning and I cried. However, I knew that it would be highly improbable for me to suffer direct damage. I'm not trivializing myself either as a voyeur or my expression of the fire, but there is an element that I feel is undeniably different between the objects brought in by people who have suffered and pictures taken by the voyeurs."

"I'd like to let people actually feel what it was like to be here and get people talking," said King, a Fernwood resident. She and her husband, Scott, remained at their home during the fire. "The more I talk about it, the better I feel."

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