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Fire in downtown L.A. building destroyed artists’ creations but not their spirit

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Jesse Fregozo was driving from his Boyle Heights home to his downtown art studio this week when an email about a overnight fire in the Arts District flashed across the screen on his cellphone.

When he arrived downtown he found strips of police caution tape blocking entry into the charred building where his studio was located at the corner of East 3rd and South Los Angeles streets.

Fregozo’s studio was one of 20 artist workspaces and several businesses in the three-story building that burned in Tuesday’s fire, authorities said.

“Not just material was lost, but [the] whole career of artists,” he said. “As an artist, when you put the time into a work, it’s done for a reason. And oftentimes that reason has more value — emotional and sentimental value — to the artist as well as the whole community.”

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Indeed, the 27-year-old later learned that one of his works was saved — a mural he had painted on the outside of the building of Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson and Lakers great Kobe Bryant. He said it was a visual gift to local residents.

“It’s kind of a way of giving back to the community, something visually appealing to them, for having me there and welcoming me and meeting all of these great artists and people,” he said.

No one was injured in the early morning fire, but almost nothing remained of the studios, gift store, luggage store or smoke shop, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department.

“We did not identify anything that was specifically salvaged,” said LAFD spokesman Brian Humphrey.

Hedy Torres, 32, also lost most of her work. She had recently placed several paintings on the floor of her studio overnight as a precaution.

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“I put them [there] because of an earthquake, and look what happened,” she said with a sad chuckle. “A fire.”

Fire tore through a three-story building in downtown’s Art District last Tuesday. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Just three months after she moved into her studio, Torres lost practically everything: five years of paintings, a projector, canvasses, wood panels, easels and 25 tubes of oil paint. All she had left was one painting she had kept at her Inglewood home and the smell of smoke clinging to her clothes.

“I’m healthy right now, I have my hands, I have my feet and I have the opportunity to re-create or to paint again,” she said. “But just thinking about the time that it took me to do all these paintings, it just made me feel like, ugh, I can’t.”

The fire started Tuesday about 1:50 a.m. and quickly spread throughout the building. Several explosions followed as canisters of pressurized flammable gas from one of the building’s first-floor smoke shops burst, throwing flames onto the street and setting a small tent encampment across the street on fire.

About 150 firefighters battled the blaze for roughly three hours before it was finally extinguished, LAFD authorities said. Emergency responders remained until Thursday morning, using heavy machinery to uncover hot spots and clean up the debris-littered streets. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Jesse Fregozo stands in front of a mural of Jackie Robinson and Kobe Bryant

Artist Jesse Fregozo, 27, stands in front of his mural, painted in 2020, of Kobe Bryant and Jackie Robinson that survived a fire that decimated a building housing his studio.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

In the days since the fire, building manager Dana Rudie, 41, has been working to pull together funding for the artists. One GoFundMe raised almost $18,000 for the Little Tokyo Art Complex, and another donation-solicitation event is scheduled for June 27 at Durden and Ray gallery.

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“It was like my pride and joy, to be a part of that space and be a part of a group that just loved working on their art,” Rudie said. “The silver lining is this is bringing all of us a lot closer together.”

Before the pandemic, the artists took part in a monthly downtown art walk, which brought hundreds of passersby into their studios. Rudie and some of the artists transformed the downstairs lobby of the building into a gallery, featuring the 20 artists on a rotating monthly basis.

Surge Witron, 30, who worked in two studios in the building over the past six years, lovingly called the place an “art colony.” He fell in love with it, filling his studio windows with plants and making friends with neighboring artists he bumped into in the hallways.

“It’s a human connection,” Witron said of grieving with his fellow artists. “It’s surreal, but it’s also very grounded to know that there’s such a communal experience throughout this.”

In a Facebook group called “Remembering LTAC” created Tuesday evening, they posted photos of their lost art: small sculptures of pickup trucks laden with goods, elaborate drawings and colorful paintings, and, in one artist’s case, a sampling of her nine years of work.

“I had all of my old physical photos and stuff, and so much of my life ephemera in the building that I just continue being struck at how many things I lost that I can’t get back,” said artist Nick Naughton, 40.

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One series he completed during graduate school in New Mexico focused on simple, black-and-white portraits of migrant farmworkers. He recalled bringing the piece to a show, where an elderly couple came up to talk to him. The man had previously worked in the fields, and he wanted Naughton to know how meaningful he’d found the work. As they talked, both of them cried.

Now the entire series is gone, save a few pieces that Naughton had sold.

“To me, it connects to all the places I’ve lived and all the times of my life,” he said.

Naughton re-created a piece once — for customers who had lost the art in a fire. He has pictures of all of his lost work, and said he could redo them. But, he hastened to add, “I don’t know if it would feel right.”

Instead, he thinks he may try to incorporate fire into his work, perhaps using charred wood as his canvas.

“Now I feel like I have to just do that, it’s like the only thing that makes sense,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll definitely just be looking forward. There’s something about art that it’s not supposed to live multiple times. Once you give birth to it … you’re kind of a changed person.”

Indeed, the fire may have destroyed much of the artists’ work but not their creative spirit.

After seeing the charred building, Fregozo went for a drive to clear his head. He wound up at his go-to art supply store in Westminster, where he purchased canvas, wood and paint in primary colors — “whatever [I could] afford at the moment,” he said. He eventually found his way back home, where he painted until 4 a.m. the following day.

“Even though this was very, very, very negative what happened, I just want to go ahead and show that even stuff like this brings up something good,” Fregozo said. “It’s not the end of the world. … There’s more coming.”

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