Liberation through fire

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A fundraiser to help local Jackie Robbins takes place this weekend.

I stood and hugged Jackie Robbins as she approached my table at Starbucks.

“I’ll take all the hugs I can get,” she said.

And it was hard to let her go. This is a woman whose touchable past was reduced to ash in minutes on Nov. 24, the day the recent wildfire swept through Corral Canyon.

Better known to most Malibu residents simply as Jackie of Leather Waves, she had moved her successful 32-year-old leather clothing business from the Malibu Country Mart-her rent had all but tripled-to a simple garage converted into a hip and charming combination workspace/studio adjacent to her home. She made the move exactly one year ago and since has conducted business by appointment only, and always with a unique flair, which included creating stylish salons to display her distinctive merchandise.

Jackie lost everything in the fire, her home and her studio, with the lone exception of what she calls her out-shed, full of about 500 of her paintings, drawings and photos-items of artistic expression she describes as her “real bliss.” Ever the artist, Jackie concedes: “My compromise was to be in the leather business and I’ve never been sorry.”

In order to help gain the necessary funds to reopen Leather Waves as soon as possible, Carol Henry, a friend and artist in her own right, has taken it upon herself to hang an exhibit of Jackie’s paintings at her studio in Westlake Village this coming Saturday and Sunday.

Over a cup of tea, Jackie talked of both the devastation and the liberation born of disaster.

“It’s freaky, it’s like your whole past disappears in one fell swoop.”

I showed her what I call my distressed man-purse, the third in a series of three that she created. I said, “Look, my zipper’s broken; now who do I take it to?”

Jackie grabbed the purse and did something magic with her fingers. “No charge.”

She spoke of her 15-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, a student at Malibu High who lost everything as well.

I said, “Cheyenne must really be distraught.”

“She’s not, you know,” Jackie responded. “She’s really handling it well. She loved everything too, but she cares more about how devastated I am.”

Jackie’s final morning at her home began at 4:30 when a neighbor phoned and alerted her to the oncoming fire. She stood on her patio and watched flames five stories high creep over the ridge. In 20 minutes they’d reached the bottom of the canyon.

“I blessed my house before I left,” she said. “And I thanked it. I said, ‘I love you, house. You’ve been the most wonderful constant in my life. I hope you get through this.'”

She speaks with reverence of the firefighters who tried to save the house, all of whom were subsequently hospitalized for lung issues. She singles out one in particular, a hero named Kelly Lynn, who met her a few days later at what was now a carpet of ash and recounted to her how they tried to water down the house from the back, which didn’t work, so they went to the front. Lynn opened the front door and was met with knee-high smoke and an onrushing wall of flame. Instinctively, he grabbed what was in reach: Jackie’s surfboard, a prized possession crafted for her by her next door neighbor whose home was badly damaged. Lynn closed the door and backed off as flames overwhelmed the house.

Two days later, Lynn stood with Jackie by the emptiness that was her home.

“We cried,” Jackie said. “This full-grown noble man broke down and cried with me because he couldn’t save my house.

“On the other hand,” Jackie said, “it’s strange; I have moments of feeling elated. There’s this real sense of liberation from all the stuff I’ve had to carry and protect all these years. “

She spoke of how strangers have come up to her and hugged her at the market.

“How blessed I am to have this wonderful opportunity. I’ve made a lot of new friends. What else happens in your life that connects you so deeply to your community?”

The exhibit takes place at the Carol Henry Studio, 31316 Via Colinas, Suite 108 in Westlake Village Saturday, Dec. 15, 6 p.m.- 9 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 16, 3 p.m.- 6 p.m. 818.264.8579.