When the fire engulfed the hills above Burbank, Calif. earlier in September, local resident Jose Luevano was told to evacuate the area and move his horses to a nearby town. Luevano works a couple of days a week at the Leslie Figge Stables, less than half a mile away from where the flames ravaged the La Tuna Canyon in the dusty Verdugo Mountains.
When the wildfire broke out, Luevano had a privileged view: His wooden cabin, perched on top of a steep, dry hill, was the last bit of property before the inferno. But the flames never reached it. "It's OK now," Luevano says, in a strong Spanish accent. "Everyone is safe."
The La Tuna Fire was one of the largest blazes in Los Angeles history, burning over 6,000 acres of land, forcing over 700 people to evacuate and destroying at least three homes. Now, as the ashes are swept away and the soil begins to heal, an anonymous art collective hopes to facilitate the regrowth by transforming charred trees into golden-streaked sculptures.
The anonymous group has taken credit for public art interventions across LA and is known for working with materials salvaged from devastating wildfires. Two years ago, the artists assembled a teahouse overnight in Griffith Park, using reclaimed Redwood trees that had been burnt down in the 2007 Griffith Park Fire.
For this installation, the collective created an immersive experience not too far from the stables where Luevano works. After a short hike up a blackened path, as sharp tree stumps and strong whiffs of burnt wood become more common, shimmering gold veins adorn the bark of damaged trees, and handmade swings hang from a couple of sturdy oaks to allow viewers to meditate.
"These are coast live oaks," says Jessica Ludwig, a local who works at a botanic garden. Ludwig decided to visit the exhibit on her day off.
"[The oaks] are really strong," she says. "You can already see the green growing back."
For Ludwig, the oaks send a powerful image: Creation can come from destruction, even when it seems that there is nothing left.
The La Tuna installation, according to the artists, is a moment of reflection and participation. The exhibit is named Lost and Found LA because the artists hoped their audience would engage with the natural cycle of death and regeneration.
A static piece of dark wooden furniture welcomes viewers, inviting them to open one of its drawers and help themselves to wildflower seeds. Visitors are also able to write the story of something they lost on small pieces of paper, which they can then roll up, paint with golden glitter and insert into a web-like wooden structure. If a note is covered in golden powder, other people visiting the exhibit are allowed to touch it, unroll it and read it. In this way, the memory of those moments of loss is reactivated and given new value.
The concept isn't new. The artists drew inspiration from the Japanese art of kintsugi, which means golden repair. Traditionally, it applies to broken pottery; it's the art of fixing ceramic creations with gold lacquer.
The idea is that the wounds and injuries add depth to the meaning of an object because they embed history and trauma. They should be remembered, not thrown out. "It's Wabi-Sabi," says Hirokazu Kosaka, a master artist in residence at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles. "It's the idea that the imperfect is perfect."
In La Tuna Canyon, the damage is all-encompassing. But the exhibit shows how the cracks of the trees shouldn't be hidden away. Instead, the trees are highlighted with golden paint, made out of beeswax and natural pigments that won't hurt the trees.
"The installation provides a place to feel and think without filter," says Becca Kessin, a theatrical sound designer who had come to visit the exhibit from outside the area. "You could just sit on a swing and gaze out at this environment, and you could see where the gold has healed it and you can still smell the smoke. You can watch the hawk circle, you can hear lizards go by, and see that this ground is very very slowly starting to heal. You can find beauty in the damage, and that helps you recover."
Lost and Found LA will run until November 12, and the collective says the best time to view the trees is between from 9 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon.