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Almeda Draconis: ‘The fire dragon that destroyed our homes’

Photo by Allayana Darrow | Artist Lucianna Estes explains the vision behind her sculpture, titled “Almeda Draconis,” from her temporary home at Inn at the Commons in Medford.

Days after the Almeda fire, Lucianna Estes sat in her Ashland Hills hotel room, staring at some of the last material remnants of her life, including a collection of coins she had worn as a belly dancer decades ago, piling on top of each other like shining dragon scales.

Today, the coins, beads and chains adorn the back of “Almeda Draconis,” a dragon sculpture Estes created to make peace with the devastating fire event.

“From the beginning, I kept thinking of the fire as this enormous dragon that came through,” Estes said. “So, I decided I was going to sculpt a dragon.”

Estes came to Ashland in the 1970s and worked as a professional dancer and belly dance teacher. In 2016, with Ashland rental prices climbing out of reach on social security income, she spent time living with friends in Grants Pass before finding an apartment in Talent to share with a friend.

Most of her valuable possessions — art supplies, handmade costumes, fabrics and silks collected over the years — were stored in a Grants Pass storage unit, ready for sorting once she settled into a new residence.

As the Almeda fire raced toward Talent, Estes escaped with her dog, Leo, her computer, and little else. Both the storage unit and apartment burned, reducing to rubble a lifetime of treasured supplies and eight boxes of photographs, memorabilia and historical family records.

“I was feeling so good, I’d finally gotten to this enormous project that I’d promised myself I would do for 30 years,” Estes said. “And then the fire came and ate that too.”

“All of what was in the storage space represented my future, because that was always the potential for creation,” she continued. “The biggest thing I felt was the fire ate my past and it ate my future, and it left me homeless.”

Later in the autumn, the storage facility owners allowed people to sort through their units for a few hours one day.

At the apartment site, Estes’ friend salvaged a large jar of coins to which they both contributed — intended to be cashed in for a trip to the Oregon Coast. After sifting through the toxic remnants of her storage unit, under streams of twisted metal, Estes found her belly dance collection, including glass beads, coins and vintage Afghan silver jewelry.

The resilient raw materials found at both sites inspired an exploration of themes of resurrection and transformation through the dragon sculpture, Estes said.

As it dried, cold porcelain clay cracked along the dragon’s staunch figure and long tail — adding to the realism of the mythical creature’s scaly skin.

“I’ll start to feel my way through it, and at some point the project starts taking on a life of itself and starts talking to you,” Estes said. “It becomes this communication — this dance — between you and the creation.”

While the project took shape, Estes heard the creature’s voice calling back, giving direction. Estes said she interpreted the messages as the transformation of grief and loss into productivity, using materials Almeda Draconis left behind in her wake. Apart from the wings, she is covered in recovered rubble.

In various mythologies, fire dragons represent intelligence, rebirth, will, desire and greed, Estes said. During her creative process, she came to feel unexpected affection for the sculpture’s magnificence and fierceness, even where the figure has required repair.

“She was so destructive for so many thousands of people,” Estes said. “She’s a primal, elemental force of nature, like the fires that are burning the forests, the intense heat now that’s becoming the norm everywhere — I think about those things when I think about her, a major transformative process.”

Estes imagines the dragon soaring across the Rogue Valley Sept. 8, enjoying the destruction of everything in her path, feeding on wood as it burned. When the dragon arrived at Estes’ storage unit, she collapsed the roof and walls and delighted in the discovery of a trove of antique coins and jewelry.

“She laid down and rolled in that melted metal and that’s how she came to have it all over her,” Estes said, explaining her vision behind the sculpture.

Estes said she hopes the sturdy sculpture offers catharsis for others, once Almeda Draconis is relocated to the lobby of Inn at the Commons in Medford, where rooms still serve as temporary homes for Estes and dozens of other fire survivors who lost their homes.

Loss is measured as an individual experience, while the universal elements of grief can be shared, she said.

Many neighbors feel the state has forgotten them there, nearly 10 months after the fire leveled 2,700 structures, Estes said. Yet she maintains a sense of relief that her past was swept away in the fire, purging old internal battles and tearing open space to create something new.

Courtesy photo | “Almeda Draconis” created by Lucianna Estes.