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The art of starting over

Fire swept her life’s work away, but at 68, fiber artist Diane Ericson is starting over, her hopes high.

She lost her home when Bear Creek Mobile Home Park burned, but supporters around the country have kicked in $107,000 to help get her going again.

She’s one of many valley artists facing similar trials.

Ericson ran a studio and taught classes in Ashland, but with COVID-19 distancing, she closed it and moved all of her art and widely sold clothing patterns — her entire life’s work — to her home near Ashland’s north exit, right in the path of the devastating fire. She rescued her laptop, at least saving 23,000 images of her work, but that’s all that survives.

“I had 10 minutes warning. A neighbor banged on the door. It was coming like a horizontal black tunnel, a tornado blasting down the road. things big as a car were dropping out of the sky. I knew if I started looking for things, like where is mother’s ring, I would get caught up in it. Everyone was scattering like ants, trying to figure out where to go. The only option was the freeway to Medford. In 20 minutes, I went from focusing on a project to sitting in the Walmart lot shaking. I knew my entire life’s work was gone. It was breathtaking.”

It might be easy after such loss to roll over and give up, but Ericson, a former Waldorf teacher, says, “There’s not going to be any ‘poor me.’ In my best moments, I know I have everything I need. I will make my way out of this. Transformative moments have an energy and potential that would never happen in a normal day, and we must reach for them and trust. There is no map for things at this level. The ability to make something out of nothing is a huge calling and gift.”

A friend started a GoFundMe campaign titled “Grateful Threads for Diane Ericson,” with a goal of $250,000. Her company Design Outside the Lines is at dianeericson.com.

Undaunted

Ericson’s artist-poet son, Miles Frode, 36, got married three days before the fire, and he lost everything too, including a lifetime of his paintings and those of other artist-friends, which he collected. They were in a storage unit that burned.

Ashland Art Center is giving displaced artists some studio space over the next half year, and Frode got one. Now he’s finding new art supplies and canvases.

As a child, he and his mother lost everything in a flood in Monterey, California, so “I learned to be OK with things going wrong. I try to be truthful in the moment and invite processing it when it comes. It’s better to feel it when it hits. I try to use it for inspiration.

“It has strengthened my resolve. It’s definitely reaffirming, from the inside. I’ve never felt more like an inspired artist. My friends are calling it ‘fiery striving.’ I’m undaunted.”

Whimsey & Grace

Nationally noted needlepoint designer Toni Randall of Talent creates patterns for evening bags, tote bags, eyeglass cases, tree-topper stars, Halloween pumpkins and more. She has 20 different collections, each painted one thread at a time and taking months of work — then they go to a printer to be mass-produced and sold to 300 shops. Her originals were all burned when lower Arnos Road lost every home.

Randall, 79, uses a walker and only learned of the fire when a neighbor banged on her door about 1:30 p.m., two hours after the fire began. A daughter in California got the news to her about the location and rapid progress of the fire, she says. It took three hours to drive to refuge at a friend’s house in Medford.

“How I learned everything was gone was watching the Facebook Live video of that guy riding his bike around Talent at night. The reality of the loss is ongoing. There are moments of extreme grief, but I get so many voicemails and messages wishing me love. It’s a strange combination.”

A friend put up a GoFundMe page, which has brought $65,000 on a $60,000 goal, helping Randall to start over.

“The needlepoint community is so responsive. I hear from all over the country, ‘What can we do to help you reestablish?’ I don’t know who 95% of them are. It’s very humbling, an incredible blessing.”

Her business, Whimsey & Grace, draws its name from how “I hope that’s what needlepoint brings to everyone who stitches. It soothes the soul, expands the heart and quiets the mind. I believe beauty will help heal this world, and I plan to reestablish my studio to help that.”

She is living now with her daughter in Ashland. Thousands of her designs are at www.whimsyandgrace.com. A post-fire video interview is on YouTube.

‘You never think that can happen’

Longtime Talent painter and folk musician Daniel Verner saw a lifetime of art and many musical instruments devoured by the flames as they leveled Mountain View Estates.

The fire took out the manufactured homes of Verner and his next-door neighbor Cheri Grubbs, who had become friends, then partners. They shared a bond of grief over loss beloved family members — his wife, Carolyn, who died of cancer the year before, and her son, David Grubbs, then 23, who was brutally murdered on the Ashland bike path in 2011 — a crime that is still unsolved. Then came the firestorm and the loss of both homes, which they owned.

“I was looking at billowing smoke, miles away and never did the thought occur to me it would reach this far,” says Verner. “My first alert was three cop cars coming in, then loud pounding on my door, yelling I have to evacuate now. I grabbed one painting, two musical instruments and my computer, which has pics of all my paintings. That’s what I have left.

Seven people jumped in four cars. It took them 45 minutes to get to Highway 99 in Talent, a quarter mile away. It was crammed with people fleeing both ways, to Ashland and Medford. It took another 45 minutes to reach Phoenix.

“I looked down 99 and saw this dark, dark cloud coming into town. Boom, boom, buildings were exploding into flames. It was so hot it was unbelievable. Flames were 80 feet in the air. We tried to turn on Stage Road, because we heard there was no fire in Jacksonville, but they wouldn’t let us. We went north on the freeway. All southbound traffic was stopped. I could see their faces, looking like they knew they were going to burn to death.

“We got to Grants Pass. It was heavy smoke. We stayed two nights. It was three days before we knew our places burned. They were just flat. I couldn’t get my head around it. There was no plan in place on any level, just ‘get out of here.’ We didn’t even hear the evacuation warning on the radio till half an hour after we evacuated.”

Where does Verner’s art go after all these traumas? He says he doesn’t know if he’ll paint or play music in public anymore. He played for years at Pie & Vine in Ashland and Samovar in Medford.

“To lose everything like this, it’s kind of like, ‘Why am I doing this?’

“Emotionally and psychologically, artists believe they’re putting something into the future, something for the ages, so to survive your entire creative work, you never think that can happen,” says Verner.

“Cheri has been incredibly helpful. She knows grief and the power of love. We have a good bond. But this makes no sense.”

Friend Renee Childs of Harmonic Design & Imaging in Talent turned a dozen of his paintings into full-size, frameable giclee art and “brought it back to life. It was a real positive in a horrible event and has done a tremendous amount to lift my spirits.”

His art covered a spectrum, including landscapes, still life, portraits, always exploring other cultures in both art and music. His passion was folk music of Eastern Europe, and he played it with a like-minded gang for 25 years at Key of C in Ashland.

“I like the humanity and range of it, the beliefs and humor of different cultures. We played the Seattle Folk Festival every year.”

The couple got shelter at Holiday Inn for a month and now are in an Ashland Air BNB. Their rubble was looted. Verner is missing some sculpture. His Russian balalaiki, Greek bauzouki and Turkish oud instruments are gone. His gofundme is almost to its goal of $15,000, and he expressed “profound gratitude for the community’s generosity and support.

“I think I will try to be present and loving and enjoy this third act coming up now.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Toni Randall of Talent creates patterns for evening bags, tote bags, eyeglass cases, tree-topper stars, Halloween pumpkins and more. Courtesy photo
Diane Ericson holds some of her fabric art, donated to her after she lost everything in the Almeda fire. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune