Fire Consumes an Artist’s Collection



Julita and Leonard Jones in their burnt out Arroyo Chico home. Photo by Ted Reckas.

As local art festivals ended their hectic summer season this week, most exhibitors took delight in their shrunken inventory, a measure of success selling work. By contrast, Laguna Beach printmaker Julita Jones feels a sense of relief at what remained unsold in her booths at the Festival of Arts and Sawdust Festival.

After fire consumed her home last week, it’s all she has left.

Shortly after finishing dinner about 8 p.m. last Tuesday, Jones, 71, and her husband Leonard, 76, heard a noise like a small explosion outside and saw flames shooting past their front door. “I called 911, grabbed a metal (safety deposit) box, the cat and my husband got out,” recalled Julita.

As flames raced up the side of their house on Arroyo Chico, they stayed on an outside deck and were aided by Laguna Beach fire fighters who had to negotiate a long flight of narrow steps leading to the property. Leonard, who had fallen while trying to escape, was carried to safety by firefighter Ian da Costa. Surrounded by neighbors, they saw their 72-year-old home engulfed in an inferno.

Fire Division Chief Jeff LaTendresse blamed the fire still under investigation on a toaster oven used on a second floor deck. He estimated structural damage at $800,000.

Subduing the conflagration required eight engines, two trucks, one support company, four chief officers and two fire investigators from Laguna Beach and other stations of the Orange County Fire Authority, 43 people altogether. “Fire trucks filled the entire neighborhood, to Catalina and Wilson,” recalled Sande Schwarzstein, a friend who lives on El Bosque, which parallels Arroyo Chico. “I could see the fire from our balcony.” Fire fighters stayed on the scene until dawn, she said.

Police issued voluntary evacuation orders for residents of Arroyo Chico and El Bosque. “We had already put the kids and some valuables into the van at the request of police, but fortunately did not have to leave,” said Pieter Wolters, whose property backs up to the Jones lot. “We had a door open and smelled something like a candle burning but suspected nothing until we heard the fire,” he recalled.

“The major concern was the dense canopy of trees above the property,” said LaTendresse, adding that a lack of wind prevented a greater calamity.

Julita Jones, president of Community Art Project, a print maker and festival exhibitor, kept her studio at the house, which did not burn. “My own art was mostly at the festivals and my printing press survived, along with my rollers and plates,” she said.

Nevertheless, she lost most of her own art collection, including a Duncan Gleason painting of her mother (painter Virginia McCallister) as a child, Tom Lamb photographs, and a Gary Fishman painting. Paul Goldie, a houseguest and her Sawdust Festival assistant, lost all of his possessions.

She mentioned that several paintings by her mother sustained damage but are restorable and that she still has the family silver. She said that, miraculously, the box containing her mother’s ashes also survived. “We still have our mother!”

“Most of our stuff is now a pile of rubbish but it’s a good thing that after the 1993 fires I photographed everything and put it into a safety deposit box,” she said.

As news of her disaster spread, fellow artists rallied. Pat Sparkuhl also recalled the ’93 inferno, where hundreds of homes burned. “I have been in studio situations where disasters could happen, an outlet gets compromised or we mix boil resin on a hot day. This sort of thing is an artist’s nightmare,” said Sparkuhl. “We all admire the perseverance, humility and fortitude Julita is showing. All of us have a sense of the pain she must feel.”

Jeweler David Nelson, who has known the couple for 41 years, collected roughly $1,800 to help them replace mundane basics. “I call it a trip to Target fund,” he quipped, adding that there is no money in the world to replace the art they lost.

Julita Jones has remained composed. “If I was 20 years younger, I would be distraught but really, our house was so full of stuff. We are thankful we got out—had we gone to bed early, we might have been trapped,” she said. “We will rebuild.”





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