Raising plants, and hopefully cash, in Santa Barbara

When a wildfire swept into the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden last May, it left behind a smoldering mountain of debris.

Except for one shovel, flames destroyed every tool the gardeners had accumulated over 83 years. Thousands of plants were gone, and thousands of botanical volumes too. A century-old, 9,500-square-foot house, eight of the garden's nine vehicles, the director's home, the split-rail fences lining tranquil paths -- all were turned to cinders.

Botanic garden: An article in Tuesday's Section A on an upcoming art show to benefit the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden gave the wrong name for the garden's vice president. She is Nancy Johnson, not Nancy Franklin. —

Until a Los Angeles nonprofit, ART from the ashes, saw a transforming opportunity, it was rubble without a cause.

But now, in a celebration of the garden's rebound, artists brought together by the group will display some 200 works made from bits, pieces and big charred chunks plucked from the devastation.

Sixty percent of the proceeds from a one-day show on Saturday will go to the garden and the rest to ART from the ashes.

It wasn't an idea that resonated immediately with officials at the stricken institution. The Jesusita fire, which destroyed 80 homes, was the third disastrous blaze to sweep across the Santa Barbara area in just two years. After each one, victims were told to be on the alert for scammers trying to exploit the tragedy.

"After a month or so of talking, I realized that the concept wasn't only real -- it was fabulous," said Nancy Franklin, the garden's vice president. "It's a wonderful, life-affirming creative action."

The flames are long out but the effects of fire linger in the 78-acre preserve straddling narrow Mission Canyon Road. Many paths in the garden's five-mile trail system have been closed off, with plastic yellow webbing across the entrances, though most are expected to reopen this weekend. On a wooden bridge in a redwood-shaded hollow, strollers can take a deep breath and still smell ash. Last weekend, a chain saw whined nearby as workers cleared out limbs weakened by fire. The hillsides remain scorched and barren.

Two-thirds of the garden was raked by flame, but some areas were left untouched. With most of the garden's plants native to California, familiar specimens like scrubby manzanita bushes and California bay trees dot the grounds. In one spot, a path curves by burned-out slopes on one side and a lush, steep canyon on the other.

Months ago, Joy Feuer, founder of ART from the ashes, received permission to poke through the damaged areas.

"It was almost like being on an archaeological dig," she said. "You'd see aluminum from tools and garden carts that's turned a molten silver. There were twisted steel beams and shattered glass from skylights. You'd see parts of shovels and hoes, and get into an almost meditative state."

At the remains of the Gane House, a rambling Craftsman-style structure with a metal shop, storage areas and some offices, she saw something metallic peeking through the ash. Digging a little, she found a pile of letterpress plates. Back at her Glendale home, she managed to clean some up enough to create prints that, but for some distortions and ghost images, were like those that ran in garden publications of the early 1940s.

"These would have wound up in the landfill," said Feuer, a former music-industry executive who started her group two years ago to help a furniture dealer whose South Los Angeles warehouse had burned down.

Feuer and her partners sent boxes of Santa Barbara rubble to artists they had contacted in spots as far flung as New York and Korea. But about 30 of the show's 53 artists were able to visit the garden and find their own treasures.

One man used ash in the glaze for his ceramic pieces. Others used lengths of iron rebar in sculptures, miscellaneous bits of metal in jewelry, burned car doors as canvases for their paintings.

In Santa Barbara, environmental artist Laura Lynch was reminded of sadly scouring the beach in Malibu for her possessions after a mudslide pushed her home into the sea about 30 years ago.

"This brought back the memories I had when I was trying to salvage something," she said. "The loss was so obvious."

Lynch created a 10-foot-tall sculpture out of doors from a garden truck and a partially melted windshield, with sunflowers fashioned out of metal cut from fallen rain gutters. The piece, an elaborate planter with a live bamboo plant, is adorned with charred nameplates that once identified plants that went up in smoke.

For people at the garden, the show marks a turning point in a tough year.

Last spring, many longtime volunteers quit, alleging mismanagement of garden funds and protesting a sweeping redesign.

Franklin, the preserve's spokeswoman, acknowledged some unpopular layoffs and a big financial hit caused by the stock market plunge. There was no mismanagement, she said, and some of the upset volunteers have returned.

Meanwhile, the cleanup continues. Workers still are assessing which trees are so fire-weakened that they might have to be taken out. For insurance purposes, officials still are tallying the damage, which is thought to be $10 million to $12 million.

As for the lone tool that survived Jesusita, it has taken on a certain mythic stature and resides in the office of the garden's horticulture director.

"We're keeping that shovel," Franklin said.


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