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Artist creates beauty in the ashes after deadly California fire

In the aftermath of the deadliest fire in California history last fall, it was difficult for anyone in the mountain town of Paradise to find hope in the ashes.

With at least 85 people dead and more than 80 percent of the homes in Paradise destroyed, the area resembled a war zone, said Shane Edwards, 42, who returned home to find that the only thing standing was his charred brick fireplace.

"The destruction was overwhelming, everywhere you looked the story was the same," he said. "People had lost everything."

When Edwards posted a picture of his fireplace on Facebook, one of his good friends, Shane Grammer, a Los Angeles artist, noticed it. But Grammer saw something that nobody else did: a blank canvas.

Grammer, 46, asked if he could paint something on the hearth and chimney to help people see beyond the burned building, to see that people like him cared - that Paradise could be a place of beauty again.

Edwards agreed, and Grammer drove up with a truck full of spray paint and spent three hours creating a mural image of a woman in black and white. Then he added a scripture reference from the Bible at the bottom: Isaiah 61, 3-4. "To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes . . . "

"It was emotional to paint the mural, knowing that so many friends had lost their homes," said Grammer, who was born and raised in Chico, about 15 miles from Paradise. He works as a freelance artist in the theme-park industry.

After Grammer photographed his finished work on New Year's Day, Edwards posted the pictures on a community Facebook page for people who had lost their homes in the wildfire.

He wasn't sure how it would be received by his neighbors, who were picking up the pieces of their lives. As it turned out, residents of Paradise saw it exactly as Grammer intended it.

"What courage to rise up and make such beauty out of a difficult situation!" one woman commented.

"Absolutely stunning," wrote another.

"Looks like [the] singer Madonna when she was younger," another commenter observed.

Once Grammer realized Edwards's neighbors liked it, he wanted to do more. He felt a pull to go back.

"While I was there to paint the fireplace, so many people had told me their own stories," Grammer recalled. "I went home emotionally exhausted from what I'd heard. It was heartbreaking. So I put an announcement on Facebook that I'd be coming back if anybody had something left from the fire that they'd like to have painted."

People started responding, asking him to go to their homes and paint in the ashes. He said he would be honored. So far he's done 12, many of them both stunning and haunting.

Grammer painted Jesus on a baptismal font - the only thing left at Hope Christian Church in Paradise.

And he sprayed the image of a sleeping woman on one resident's burned pickup truck.

Grammer also did a portrait of an 84-year-old woman, Helen Pace, who died in her mobile home during the fire. Then he painted the likeness of a girl on a faux rock wall.

"His portrait of Jesus on our charred baptismal is as encouraging as the wooden cross still standing after the wall burned to the ground," said Jeana Darby, 35, worship and ministries director for Hope Christian Church, who also lost her home in the fire.

"Having Shane come and use his gift has been such a blessing," said Darby, who said the congregation is meeting in Chico until they can rebuild in Paradise.

Nicole Weddig, a registered nurse who went to high school with Grammer, invited him to paint the remnants of a wall that ringed her front yard. Everything else owned by Weddig, her husband, Greg, and their 9-year-old daughter, Eleanor, was incinerated in the fire. The family is living in a fifth-wheel trailer parked at a friend's home in Chico, wondering if they'll ever recover from their sadness, said Weddig, 45.

"Not only did our home burn down, we also lost our community," she said.

She added that schools have relocated, and in her daughter's class of 24 students, 10 families are no longer there. Some have moved away, but she doesn't know what happened to all of them.

"Where did they go? Do they have a roof over their heads and food on the table?" she said. "It's heartbreaking not to know."

When Weddig told Grammer to paint whatever he liked on her wall, he decided to do a portrait of Eleanor from a Facebook photo taken when she was 3.

Painting her portrait, he said, "I felt like I was walking on emotional glass."

Weddig was moved to tears when she drove up the hill to Paradise and saw her daughter's sunny face shining through the black rubble.

"Her expression is so hopeful and happy - it felt right for our girl to be home smiling, there with what was left of the house we'd brought her home to when she was a newborn," she said. "It felt right to have something so beautiful in Paradise again."

Shane Edwards, whose property on Clark Street is visible to everyone driving into Paradise, said his friend's artwork reminds him of how lucky he is. Some people lost their lives.

"Stuff is just stuff," said the father of five, who manages a furniture store in Chico, while his wife, Jennifer, teaches life skills to disabled adults.

"It's tough to see everything you own go up in ash, but things can be replaced," he said. "Shane's painting reminds me of that. His painting is even more beautiful than I thought it would be."

Once Edwards and his family decide where to build a new home, a large framed photo of Grammer's mural will be displayed front and center for all to see, he said.

"I've always loved Shane's artwork, but to see this beautiful painting in the middle of all of the destruction was overwhelming," Edwards said. "I want to share it with as many people as possible."

Suzanne Drews feels the same way about the portrait Grammer painted of her mother, Helen Pace. Pace lived alone in a mobile home and was among those who couldn't escape the wildfire.

"She lived near me, but the morning of the fire, I could not get to her," said Drews, who also lost her home in the blaze. "We are honored that [Grammer] would paint this for us, to memorialize my mom. Shane portrayed her wonderment. It left me almost speechless."

On the Facebook page, residents say they are grateful for the memorial of Pace. One user wrote: "Awesome. While the initial chimney art of the random female face is beautiful, THIS is not only beautiful, it causes one to stop and really see and feel this fire's true tragedy."

Grammer said he is simply glad for the opportunity to leave a touch of beauty in the bleakness.

"It was important for me to do it," he said. "I wanted to paint something to bring hope to a scene of such devastation."

Shane Grammer, left, and Shane Edwards after Grammer finished painting a mural on Edwards's burned-out fireplace in Paradise, Calif. MUST CREDIT: Courtesy of Shane Grammer. For use only with CALIF-FIRE.