Face of Malibu Rebuilds: Karena Lewandowski

Face of Malibu Rebuilds is a series from artist Johanna Spinks, featuring Malibu residents and their experiences before, during and after the Woolsey Fire. If you have a fire story you would like to share with The Malibu Times, a person of note or courage, or a person who just needs some cheer around this difficult rebuild time, to be sketched for this series, please contact Spinks at johanna@johannaspinks.com or The Malibu Times Managing Editor Emily Sawicki at emily@malibutimes.com.

Spinks, a professional portrait artist and longtime Malibu resident, is donating her time to this series for the interviews and sketches. Readers may remember her original Face of Malibu portrait series that ran monthly in The Malibu Times for five years. You can see more examples of her portrait work at johannaspinks.com.

Devoted daughter Karena Lewandowski knew she had to find a way to help her Polish-born mom, Wanda, 65, a systems’ programmer, cope with the “long haul of negotiating sadness” from the loss of their family home. Karena, 36, a graphic designer, rescued a broken bracelet from their Busch property ashes for another artist to repurpose it into a healing new piece of jewelry for Wanda. Sensing this might help others, soulful Karena has just founded a nonprofit group—“Come Together—Art Heals”—a network of community creatives, transforming fire-damaged items into beautiful restorative pieces of art. Both mother and daughter talk about their experience through tears, but with a very apparent newfound strength.  

What is your back story with Malibu? Tell us a little about your life and old home.

Karena: I moved to the house when I was three; I loved the surrounding environment. I grew up wanting to be in the water all the time. 

Wanda: I came to America 1971 on a vacation. I met Jerry (husband, 68, an electronic engineer) through my cousin; we got married in ‘72. And the same year, his brother took me to Zuma Beach. I looked at that beach—it was so beautiful—and I fell in love with Malibu.


What was your direct experience of the Woolsey Fire?

Wanda: On Thursday, there was a fire in Camarillo, which was very close to Karena’s house. My husband was evacuating and packing up her valuable stuff. We were very nervous about her, not us. The next morning my grandson Jordan, 15, who lives with us, didn’t go to school in Agoura as the clouds were coming in. Finally, I just packed up everything for Jordan, two or three days of clothing, and took our Great Dane, Lady—everybody knows her in west Malibu—and Jordan’s bird Violet. (Wanda also has a son, Andre, 39). Never in a million years did I think this was going to happen. Out of 10 houses in my neighborhood, nine are gone.

Karena: I woke up to my mom’s phone call, early morning, that the fire had jumped Kanan—there is an evacuation. I didn’t feel a sense of urgency so I waited it out for my mom to come. I remember calling the house line and it kept ringing. That was the first sign that something was kinda up.

Wanda: Jerry told me immediately that there is no way our house survived. I kept hoping something had survived. Our neighbor, John, somehow got pictures from our neighborhood. He told us with tears; he felt so bad that his house survived and ours had gone. This was three days after. Then, I realized my hopes were gone. That was the day I finally cried. 

Karena: I was just dying [to see the house]. I came across this amazing lifeguard captain who escorted me alone. There was only one seat in the car. It was just a war zone. 

Wanda: Losing the house was not as painful as listening to Karena, sobbing, while making the video of it. I couldn’t watch it again. The sadness was overwhelming the first month; I didn’t feel like I would ever be able to laugh again. My dog lost 20 pounds. I think she was pining for the house. She feels the pain I felt. She got skinner, skinnier and skinnier. I finally took her to our place. I hugged her and said, “I’m so sorry. We don’t have a home.” She somehow realized what had happened and turned the corner. Now it’s totally different for me, too. 

What will your rebuild look like?

Wanda: We were underinsured but they were very good to us. They paid us every penny. We are going to have to put about $400,000 from our own money to rebuild. We thought it was $250 a square foot, but at one of those city meetings we were told it was $450-500 per square foot. We have been trying to find the plans to our house but no one has them. I am not the only one. Apparently, plans were not microfiched. They were destroyed.

Karena: There was nothing I could do for my parents. I wanted so badly to create something for my mom. I found some beads from my mom’s bracelets in the rubble. I reached out to an artist friend in San Francisco and she was able to make some jewelry. I have a graphic design, printing and apparel company so I was inspired to design some fundraising shirts. (Karena’s logo is seen on the t-shirt in Spinks’ drawing). Art has the ability to heal our whole community, so I have started “Come Together,” a network of artists, to create, inspire and heal through art to help people who are recovering and rebuilding—reinventing and repurposing items like found jewelry and metal in the rubble so that people have part of their old home. I have been networking so much and pulling people together, probably about 18 artists so far, from musicians to stone and metal sculptors to painters. Many are from Malibu. My hope is others will join in and support and purchase the unifying merchandise or volunteer to be part of the mission [cometogether.shop].

What has been the hardest aspect of this experience for you?

Wanda: When I saw my neighbors, much older than me—their loss. I am really family-oriented. Every painting and artwork that I had from my family, I know I will never be able to replace.  

Any shining moments?

Wanda: Family members calling from all over, having really kind compassionate voices, sending letters, cards and parcels. You know how much you are loved.  You see that people really do care. 

Karena: One of the most difficult and beautiful things was the chance I had to create beautiful jewelry for my mother from shattered gemstone pieces we found in the rubble. The Goddess design (on Karena’s new apparel) is dedicated to my mom and all of us who lost our homes; on the left-hand side, all the cities that burned and the dates of the Woolsey Fire, on the right, a dedication to the Borderline families. 

What is the biggest challenge ahead for you?

Wanda: The biggest challenge will be getting all the permits and plans. Finding people to rebuild your home will be a challenge, too, because people all over are doing the same thing.  

Any suggestions or advice for others displaced by the fire?

Wanda: Be strong. Believe in a higher power and have faith that their lives will improve, like mine did. The way I felt the first few days and first few weeks and the way I feel right now are like night and day. I am looking forward to making a new family home, especially for my grandson. Every day, I pray that my husband finds his strength to help us rebuild. I know if anything happens to him I would be totally lost. 

Karena: Know kindness and compassion do go a long way and that time will heal. It’s a long haul of negotiating sadness.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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