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THE SOUTHLAND FIRESTORM: ONE YEAR LATER : Sculptor's Phoenix Struggles to Rebirth

October 26, 1994|MACK REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twice, sculptor Tony Duquette watched fire devour his life's work.

Twice, he gathered himself up, shoveled away the ash and carried on, finding the strength to work in a searing image that drove him.

In 1988, a toppled heater ignited a blaze that burned the San Francisco pavilion-studio shared by Duquette and his wife and fellow artist, Elizabeth. It consumed priceless artworks and objets d'art that they had created and collected, including Duquette's ornate sculpture series for the Los Angeles bicentennial celebration.

A year ago Thursday, the massive Green Meadow fire in Ventura County swept through Duquette's lush, 135-acre ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains south of Thousand Oaks. It wiped out all but fragments of the phoenix sculptures he had begun building to answer the first fire.

The second fire stopped Duquette, a workaholic, dead in his tracks for a few months.

But now, a year after the fire, the 80-year-old artist is planning to mount a new exhibition of towering, delicate sculptures that will be called "The Phoenix Rising From His Flames."

Still, the memory of the fire brings pain to the Tony Award-winning set designer, interior decorator and world-renowned artist.

Surrounded by his fragile-looking new work, Duquette rests in the jungly garden of his Beverly Hills house and describes it for a visitor.

"I was able to stand and watch it all disappear, and it made a beautiful sight," Duquette recalls. "The pagodas and buildings all in lights against the black sky made a dazzling end of what had been a life's work."

Tony and Elizabeth Duquette had named their Ventura County spread Sortilegium--Latin for "Land of Enchantment."

"The house in town and the other houses were just houses," Duquette says sadly. "But this was in a sense a kind of artistic fulfillment."

The fire took it all.

Gone were the baroque pavilions packed with art treasures from Asia and Europe, the sculptures and paintings and tapestries he and his wife had acquired and created in the 38 years they were there.

Gone were the lovingly crafted artifacts of an imaginary civilization that they had stored in hillside caves, the remnants of a society they called the ChuChinChowMash.

Gone were all the molds and 29 fiberglass-and-steel sculptures he had already built in the "Phoenix" series.

Gone, too, was the stuff of his art--the salvaged hardware, found objects and raw material he made into sculpture.

Six iron columns and a spiral staircase were left jutting from the ruined foundation of the main house. Splinters of polychrome glass and shards of pottery, new and ancient, glinted in the ash.

Around it stood half a dozen wrecked pavilions, their iron frames hung with charred antlers from the grounds of Hearst Castle, their contents reduced to cinders.

Duquette could barely stand to look at it.

"As soon as I could face it, I supervised the cleanup," he said. "But it was a heartbreaking experience."

At his age, he wondered how he could go on. His wife and artistic partner of 45 years, stricken with Parkinson's disease, was growing sicker. A lifetime's worth of her paintings also perished in the blaze.

"She has a catalogue of photos of the paintings and looks at them all the time, crying," Duquette said. Yet the disease hampers her ability to verbalize the loss, he said. "It's the most total torture for two people that are one."

The prospect of rebuilding the huge environmental artwork of Sortilegium late in life daunted him.

Hutton Wilkinson--Duquette's neighbor, business manager and longtime friend--said the artist has never cried publicly over his loss. But the fire was an enormous shock.

"He'd never put money in the bank. He'd put money into things, so it was like the fire wiped out his bank account," Wilkinson recalled. "I said: 'Tony, it was just a lot of stuff,' and he said, 'But it was my materials, it was what I worked with.' "

Two weeks later, the two friends flew to Bali and Indonesia with cases full of sharks' teeth, seashells, gems, silver and gold, Wilkinson said.

After a month of therapeutic work and touring, Duquette flew home again with 30 pieces of finished jewelry, and eventually created 121 more.

He made stabs at cleaning up the ranch. But they were painful, he said, and he stuck mostly to the Beverly Hills house, redecorating, gardening and wading through the insurance papers.

And for more than six months after the fire, Duquette said, he suffered an agonizing artistic "blackout" of his creative drive.

Yet slowly, deliberately, Duquette pushed himself to work again on the "Phoenix" project, rebuilding molds from memory.

Following the San Francisco fire, he had based the sculptures on the image of the phoenix bird itself. Now the central image became an egg, symbol of the Garuda, a mythical Indonesian bird said to hatch full-grown. He created a dozen totemic sculptures, a lustrous fiberglass egg floating in a corona of stylized flame and wings at the center of each.

And he is still gaining steam.

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