From Ashes Rises a Collection of a Different Sort

Sandra LeWinter outside her museum-inspired gates.

Sandra LeWinter outside her museum-inspired gates.

FirestormLOGOThe remnants of Sandra and Jerry LeWinter possessions from before Laguna Beach’s life-altering 1993 conflagration fits into a rectangular glass case dubbed “Memento Mori.”

Shards of French porcelain, sundry dishes, bent silver and a charred wedding band lie among the blackened mementos that Mr. LeWinter has tried to be rid of for at least a decade.

Yet Mrs. LeWinter clings to them. “The stuff keeps reminding me of the ephemeral nature of all things material,” she said.

Today, the former bookcase cum time capsule sits in the bedroom of the couple’s rebuilt sleek contemporary house, serving as a literal ode to the resiliency of spirit.

For many residents who lived through Oct. 27, 1993, remembrance can still be painful. And though 14,337 acres burned and 391 homes destroyed, no lives were lost.

Even so, in a town filled with collectors, material losses of original art works cut deep. Entire collections ranging from traditional California to modernist to contemporary art went up in flames, irreplaceable both spiritually and financially.

On that fateful day, the LeWinter saw the fire roar along the canyon ridges visible from their

A cabinet containing possessions salvaged from the ’93 fire that destroyed the LeWinter home.

A cabinet containing possessions salvaged from the ’93 fire that destroyed the LeWinter home.

hilltop home, grabbed a few items and joined the downhill exodus.

The LeWinter who recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, came to California in 1978 from Teaneck, N.J., after falling in love with the southern coast during a pleasure trip. While Mr. LeWinter, a representative for garment makers, had no immediate job prospects then, both came equipped with an eye for art that they had honed visiting New York museums.

Mrs. LeWinter soon deployed her art knowledge as a docent at the former Newport Harbor Art Museum and now chairs the Contemporary Collectors, a group focused on art education and support of museum exhibitions.

Once here, they first moved to Dana Point, but found a fixer upper in Laguna Beach’s Mystic Hills in 1984. “We wanted to house with a view,” she said. A view they got, nearly 180 degrees of coastline to their left and unfettered canyon vistas to the right. The walls they filled with what Mrs. LeWinters describes as a modest collection of artworks on paper.

But, from those ashes rose a Phoenix, a sleek modern, light-filled house designed by Irvine architect Timothy Wilkes and filled with contemporary furniture and art. Their art collection shifted from Käthe Kollwitz drawings and Picasso lithographs to California emerging artists. Only a gilt French clock and a few African sculptures connect memories of time and place.

Among the first emerging artists the couple began to collect during their new phase was Los Angeles painter Kim Dingle, still best known for her depictions of cherubic little girls engaged in riotous behavior attributed more to little boys. (A raucous crop populates a painting acquired by the LeWinters titled “Last Supper at Fatty’s.”)  In several museum collections now, Dingle’s work has become priced out of the couple’s reach. “Our emerging artists have emerged for the most part; now we can’t even afford a Kim Dingle anymore,” Mrs. LeWinter said.

The couple acquired “Girl With Red Flag,” by selling two cars, she said.

Dingle’s works keep international company: A gigantic Enrique Martinez Celaya head dominates the terrace, and a calligraphy covered ceramic by Japanese artist Mineo Mizuno graces the foyer. A William Kentridge (South Africa) drawing hangs near another Dingle and then there are those majestic front gates inspired by museum visits to Washington, D.C.

A sensuous ceramic by Jay Kvapil attracts attention in the living area.  “In the 60-year span where we collected, our tastes have changed, and now we have slowed down somewhat,” said Mrs. LeWinter, adding that the couple maintains personal relationships with many of the artists they collect.

The couple’s grown children, Bruce, 57, Mark, 54, and Michele, 48, have while at least reluctantly at first, now fully embraced their parents’ passion.

Expanded their interest into photography, the LeWinters recently acquired a stunning floral composition by Israeli photographer Ori Gersht.

“We still only buy what we love, but after the fire we determined to become minimalists, that is to say that for every new work we acquire now, we will give something away,” she said.


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