Lost art, found heart

Times Staff Writer

In her $2 thrift shop jeans and spare apartment graced by a meek potted Christmas tree, Alejandra Vernon is feeling rich today.

She lost everything two weeks ago in the Long Beach apartment house fire that killed two people, injured 18 and uprooted hundreds of renters like her for the holidays.

Yet the 62-year-old artist said collectors of her work -- but far more strangers -- are transforming the Dec. 8 tragedy "into the most amazing experience of my life."

At Four Olives Cafe in Bixby Knolls, owner Douglas Orr e-mailed regulars and promised half of Tuesday's receipts to Vernon, whose vivid collages were displayed there a few years ago, earning her local fans.

Through dining or through dollars stuffed into a jar, nearly $900 was collected that night.

Ever since, people have offered furniture. They have delivered gift cards and gift certificates for art supplies to the cafe on Atlantic Avenue a few miles from the burned apartment building.

A waiter offered his microwave. An office worker unfamiliar with Vernon's art said "It doesn't matter" and pledged her sewing table on which Vernon could create anew.

The petite Christmas fir is her first since her mother died five years ago. She lost a wrapped gift from her stepmother in the fire, but believes that she has gained so much more.

"I've never felt the Christmas spirit like this year," said Vernon, who will spend today with the family of her pastor's sister. "It's just a much warmer Christmas than last year. Because I'm that much closer to the friends I have and I've made new friends."

Likewise, Bixby Knolls residents said their low-key help for the artist better reflects their neighborhood than two high-profile events in their area: the Halloween attack on three white women, allegedly by a group of black youths, and the December fire that city officials have called the worst in recent memory.

"This is who we really are," Lissette Flores said as others at her table of eight nodded.

Flores owns a Vernon collage whose religious iconography moves her. "I come from Southeast Asia, and my oranges are like an offering to God, to me," Flores said of the fruit in her piece.

Unlike customers, Orr has only a print of a Vernon collage in his cafe office. An active resident of the neighboring California Heights historical neighborhood, Orr draws loyal patrons primarily from there and middle-class Bixby Knolls.

Customers cite ways Orr has helped others without fanfare. He is conducting a food drive for people with AIDS. He raised about $600 for a historic street lamp dedicated in April 2005 to the memory of customer Steve Ortiz, whose widow attended the Vernon benefit at Orr's cafe.

Three or four years ago, Orr saw Vernon's collages of paper, paint and glazes at a now-closed Long Beach gallery. He learned that her work had also been exhibited at galleries back East. He invited her to show her work at his storefront bistro in the heart of Bixby Knolls.

Many customers bought her work, and Flores, a collector, hosted one of her annual art parties in Vernon's honor to introduce her art to others. In time, other art rotated into Orr's cafe and he lost touch with the artist.

But four days after the fire, Orr saw Vernon at the counter of Polly's Pies on Atlantic. He was dismayed to learn that her unit was in the part of the complex declared uninhabitable.

The same day, he sent out a group e-mail to customers: Could they find some way amid the harried holidays to help "our friend and fellow artist" who lost everything?

In the days that followed, people did. Two vendors donated food for the Tuesday dinner. That day, an artist anonymously dropped $90 in the donation jar, Orr said.

Over the course of several hours that night, there were small bills and big hugs from diners, a few who did not know of the benefit but gave nonetheless.

The next morning, Vernon picked up more than $800 in cash and had to turn down waiter Jaesen Alfassa's offer of his microwave. Someone else had already given her one.

"Words are just so insufficient, so inadequate, to convey my gratitude," Vernon said.

Born in Reading, Pa., Vernon was 6 months old when her father moved the family to South America, and her art reflects a Latin influence.

The family spent five years in Ecuador, where her father managed a cattle ranch, then five years in Buenos Aires in Argentina, "where my heart lies," Vernon said.

"They say wherever you lived when you were 7 is ... what you will always think of as home," she added.

Other homes included Jamaica and New York City, where, Vernon said, she won a scholarship to George Balanchine's School of American Ballet, and at 15 joined the company as apprentice. At 21 she faced the fact: She had the soul of an artist, not a dancer, and quit.

Over the years, she has lived many places.

For an eight-year stretch, her creative muse vanished and Vernon produced no art. She moved to several states, working at a series of regional chain discount stores in management. There were 80-hour weeks and hateful duties overseeing low-income workers. "It makes you tough. You can handle almost anything if you can do that work," she said last week.

Following a spiritual evolution she prefers to keep private, the dry spell ended, and she has been steadily creating art. Most of her pieces are three-dimensional and about 1-foot square, although some have been larger.

Her collages can take 200 hours to make. Collectors like Flores say they love their vibrant detail. They have been made into prints, greeting cards and book illustrations. Most recently Vernon illustrated ".Christ," an accessible telling of the New Testament's Book of Matthew.

After her mother died in the spring of 2001, Vernon bought a one-way ticket to Long Beach. She had been making her collages on the coffee table of her Paradise Garden apartment.

And she was there about 3 p.m. that Friday, Dec. 8, dressed in distressed old clothes preparing to do framing, when she heard a commotion in the alley. Leaning over her balcony, she said, she saw a fury of hoses and firefighters.

Her head was strangely quiet as she dashed mechanically back into her apartment. She got her cat Liddy into a carrier when a firefighter on a ladder looked through her open sliding-glass door and said, "Ma'am, now." He made her close the door and leave the carrier on the balcony or she wouldn't make the climb down the ladder.

A stove-top fire spread through numerous apartments of the three-story building, killing the parents of a tenant, hurting firefighters and others.

Besides Orr, her list of people committing random acts of kindness includes an animal control officer, a Mr. Peltier, who jotted down her unit number on his hand, vowing to look for the cats when the fire was out.

At 11 p.m. that Friday, Peltier visited her at the American Red Cross shelter in the Jordan High gym. He had found both her cats.

Over that weekend, fire officials escorted Paradise Garden residents back to their units, where they had to wear goggles and hard hats and got 10 minutes to retrieve what they could. Vernon had made a list. It was mostly practical: fire safe, coat, purse, cellphone charger, red leather shoes -- and the cat box and cat food bowl.

Wherever she landed, she figured she would need both immediately after she was reunited with her pets. That Sunday, the Paradise Garden management let her move into an apartment in the south wing of the complex. It had no heat or furnishings.

But back at the shelter, a man of clearly modest means had walked up to her with his daughter of about 8, the girl clutching a maroon and gold quilt. The man said his daughter wanted to give her the blanket, and she laughs now to think of the kissing and hugging the child had to endure from her.

For two days without power, Vernon said, the quilt helped her survive. Members of her La Mirada church, Shekinah International, found her chairs and a table, a few dishes and a twin mattress that lies on her floor.

And a few miles away at Orr's cafe, customers continued to ask him for ways they could help the artist.

Orr deeply empathizes with Vernon's fire loss. He's an artist who builds sets for a local theater company. Twenty years ago, he said, he lost his own artwork and tools in a smaller Long Beach fire.

"I commented to some of the regular customers that Alejandra will be missing things for the rest of her life that she can't find.... It changes you," Orr said.

Flushed with gratitude, Vernon said that change has been all good.

"I've learned," she said Tuesday night, being hugged by one of 60 people who came to the cafe, "that the world is a much better place than I thought it was."

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nancy.wride@latimes.com

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