Face of Malibu Rebuilds: Shelby Basso

Shelby Basso

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.

Environmentalist Shelby Basso, 78, may have lost her beloved home of half a century, but this gardening grandma of six, who ran a nursery consulting business for 30 years and worked at Malibu Garden Center in her “retirement,” is laying down roots for her family’s next generation, building a “Legacy House” with a blossoming great attitude. Shelby, talking from her calming ocean-view rental with dazzling spring flora on abundant display through the windows, also shared she has a sixth sense with premonitions she calls “The Done Deal”—this mother of four knew the devastating fires were coming. 

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

I got to Malibu because I was remarrying. My husband of 35 years, before he passed, (Frank) was very active in the Malibu community. We decided to move to Malibu because there were no fires on Point Dume. That’s the irony (laughing). Nobody knew of Wandermere Road until after the fire. It was not a through street. I loved being there. I miss it terribly. I was there for 50 years. Most of my life played out there. I inherited all the photos, all the history and my dad’s thesis on aviation from Stanford: my house was a wealth of historical things and beautiful things, but I am not attached to the beautiful, I am attached to the historical. I built a studio on top of the house 25 years ago—all wooden, a one-piece beam, with an outside entrance. It became a retreat for me to meditate, do art or share with the grandchildren. It had a magical feeling to it. We adopted a family from Ecuador 25 years ago and the husband, Joel, had done a lot of custom work on the house—tiling, painting. He redid my entire kitchen. Just the week before, Joel and I were walking in the garden, and I took his arm and said, “Look at this beautiful house you created for us.” Then, boom, this happened. 

What was your direct experience of the Woolsey Fire?

I was in the desert with my sweetheart’s son. I was receiving messages from my son, my cousin and friends, they were keeping track of the wind, and the possibility there was going to be a fire. The messages kept coming. Debbie Stone, the manager at the Trancas Canyon Garden Centre, she had endowed me with three goats when she moved back to Malibu, as she didn’t have any place to put them. We grew close together because of the goats. The day of the fire, she knew I was worried. She went to the house and went up to the loft and said, “I don’t think you have anything to worry about.” She realized soon after that the fire was moving rapidly, so she went back to the house to get a precious box of photos for me. Such a wonderful woman. I got one phone call from my son, and this gets me every time, (crying) saying: “I’m sorry mom” in a very quiet voice. That’s all he said to me, and “I love you.” I turned around to my sweetheart and said, “I have just been erased.’ I had a premonition about the fire. I sometimes have “feelings.” It comes in as something that is already manifested—”The Done Deal”—I always call it that. I knew that 2018 was going to have a heavy load attached to it. I didn’t know what, exactly. Sometime just before the so-called “fire season,” I knew that it was going to be a devastating fire and an unusual fire. Something made me go get that box of photos and leave them by the front door. That’s why it’s still here (pointing to the box). It was surreal, the first time I saw my house, like I was having an out of body experience. To hear about it is one thing, but then be in the setting is completely different. I started detaching as my way to deal with it.

What will your rebuild look like?

The debris is not quite pulled out. We are going to rebuild within footprint. I feel pretty calm about the whole thing. I feel it will turn out the way it is supposed to. We had good insurance. Also, my son Frankie is the point person for the rebuild. We are a working with a consortium who are really nice people, and competent. I had checked my fire insurance about a month before to make sure we were covered, as I had a “feeling.” (The coverage was raised.)

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

From the fire to December 1, I had dreams every night of going to sift through things to find objects. One morning, I decided to shift my thinking. I needed to somehow turn something into a positive. So, it came to me to put a Christmas tree in front of my property. Debbie helped me. We had a joyful time decorating it. It was done to clear my heart. It was extremely therapeutic for me and I haven’t felt as devastated since. 

Any shining moments?

There are so many that it is almost impossible go through them all. One of the things just recently that everybody is talking about, we went from black to green, and when we went to green, those Painted Ladies (butterflies) must have been sitting looking at their watches thinking, “It’s time.” 

What is the biggest challenge ahead for you?

Resetting for the future. It’s not my house in my mind. I am calling it the “legacy house,” by the way. I want it to go to my children and grandchildren. There, they can establish their own memories as adults.

Any suggestions or advice for other displaced fire people?

Don’t despair because life moves, period. That’s the one thing people forget. They think they are going to be stuck and they are not. Also, to expect good for the future; if you don’t have that outlook, you can get into trouble. I love the community that happened within Malibu since the fire; the connective tissue is stronger since the fire. Malibu was wounded. It’s going to take time to put salve on that wound.