The Healing Power of Art

Karena Lewandowski (left) and Casey Campanella co-founded “Come Together: A Journey to Resilience Through Music and Art.” 

Longtime Malibu resident Karena Lewandowski’s art was prominently featured at the 59th annual Topanga Banjo • Fiddle Contest & Folk Festival held at Paramount Ranch over the weekend.

This was the first large public event held at Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills since the Woolsey Fire destroyed much of the property about six months ago.

Funded by the National Park Service and the Santa Monica Mountains Fund, Lewandowski’s project “Come Together: A Journey to Resilience Through Music and Art” spanned 484 feet of fence surrounding Paramount Ranch’s severely burned Western Town.

The printed mesh banners, created by Come Together for the NPS, honored the historical legacy of Western Town and the wildlife of the Santa Monica Mountains. 

Lewandowski’s aim was to help her fellow locals heal since last fall’s devastating Woolsey Fire upended so many lives. 

“Ever since the Woolsey Fire destroyed my parents’ home on Busch Drive, creating art—and especially creating and sharing it with others—has done more to comfort me than anything else I can imagine,” said Lewandowski, 36. 

Now a graphic artist living in Camarillo, Lewandowski spent her childhood in Malibu. Her parents, Jerry and Wanda, have called Malibu their home since the early 1980s.

“The opportunity for our collective of talented local artists to create these murals with the help of Woolsey Fire victims has been incredibly rewarding to me,” said Lewandowski. 

Lewandowski says she’s grateful to the festival, the park service and the Santa Monica Mountains Fund for allowing her to share this artistic creation and experience with the public. 

“I hope it was as healing to the festival visitors as it has been for me and my family,” she said.

Jenni Campbell, a Topanga Banjo • Fiddle Contest & Folk Festival committee member and chair of the Los Angeles Region Long-Term Recovery Group for the Woolsey Fire, said the artwork was an important addition to the program.

“Karena has been working tirelessly since the fire’s last flames went out to find ways to turn the tragedy our communities went through into something redemptive,” Campbell described. “And that’s exactly what her project has done and why we felt it was so important for us to make it part of our event at Paramount Ranch.”

Lewandowski cofounded the nonprofit art collective Come Together, along with Casey Campanella. 

“Art gives people a way to express themselves. Even coloring-in a mural can help people forget what they’ve lost for a short while,” Campanella said. 

Festival goers helped complete interactive murals, which will be auctioned off to help the Santa Monica Mountains Fund’s Road to Recovery.

“Collaboration is important. Sharing in an artistic experience is also healing. Life must go on,” Lewandowski said.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch and despite the threat of rain, the festival went ahead with more than 100 musicians competing in front of a large and enthusiastic audience. Two thousand four hundred people attended this year’s festival, down 50 percent compared to previous years but miraculous, considering the weather.

Campbell was delighted with the turnout and how the art installation was received at the festival. 

“We wanted to collaborate with people who recognized this community is still healing and that music and art bring us together,” the committee member reflected. “The healing is a long process. Right now, people are realizing that they aren’t healed. They are coming out of crisis mode and have been running on adrenaline trying to make it through every day. Now, they’re just recognizing that they are still hurting and they need to start processing what happened because they have been so busy focusing on just getting through each day.”

More than 3,000 people applied for help from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Administration) in LA County after the Woolsey Fire with over 700 homes lost. Campbell suffered damage to her Agoura Hills home but said she was luckier than her neighbors, who lost everything. 

“The fire jumped the 101 [Freeway] literally into our backyard,” she said. “The recovery is going to be a long process.”

It may be a long process but, as the 2,400 smiling faces at the Topanga Banjo • Fiddle Contest & Folk Festival and the new shoots on the burned trees at Paramount Ranch can attest, recovery has begun.