Face of Malibu Rebuilds is a new 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or The Malibu Times Managing Editor Emily Sawicki at email@example.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.
Many artists and creatives lost their studios and homes in the recent fire, including Swedish portrait artist Inger Hodgson—just before her 80th birthday. The resilient Inger, who has faced tragedy before, losing one of her five children to a drowning accident some years ago, chooses to look on the current adversity in a remarkably positive light. Inger, with her trademark large eyeglasses, crop of blonde curls and a fierce twinkle in her eye, says the slate is now wiped clean for new beginnings. Inger has many portraits in private and public collections, including The National Gallery of Sweden.
What is your back story with Malibu? Tell us a little about your life and old home.
My ex-husband and I found Malibu [while] living in Venice, going up for a picnic. We fell in love with Malibu. In 1976, we had been to Europe and things were not the same in Venice on our return. As an artist I had been working in Paris and Sweden that year and so I become very active within the Malibu Artist Association right away. I am the oldest living member of The MAA right now! From this new home—1976 to 1984—[while] showing with MAA, I was winning awards in the juried shows so a separate class was created for me called “portrait painting.” I was wining too many awards! We had such a good time those years. I had practiced portraits on family and friends and then I got this training in Florence at the Studio Cecil-Graves in the sight-size method. I took people from the MAA every August to spend a month in Florence and we used the school there for about seven years.
I felt I was in charge of a bit of Native America Indian land [at my Malibu home]. We lived as if we did not have any but immediate needs: butter, milk and cheese. Our aim was to live a self-sufficient lifestyle. People would come to my house and think they were being served “Filaree” chicken but it was rabbit off the land. I have always had this very strong feeling of the land, the walks and the flowers. I know every one by name. For me, it was just heaven. I built my studio “Carl Larsson style,” (after the famous Swedish artist). The wood was stained blue. Every piece of wood in my house I had prepared by hand before it was built. The original house was one of the first four structures in Malibu Park. Those were my best years.
What was your direct experience of the Woolsey Fire?
I woke up with this heavy smoke in the nose. I walked to the front door and there was my daughter. We had a couple of minutes to get out. Then we sat on PCH for five-and-a-half hours: it was a terrible time. I expected the fire to jump through any canyon. Any time we moved a foot, the fire moved with us. It was a desperate feeling. I had packed a little suitcase because I was going anyway the next day to my son Hannibal’s place in Newport Beach. I had some clothes, my brushes and medium. It was fantastic that I had this little suitcase!
A week later, the following Friday, I found out for sure our house was gone from my daughter, Molly, also living on the property. We tried every day to get back. On Sunday, I approached from Topanga after 2 p.m. and met one of my renters and friends who had walked along the beach and come up to our property. The pool was like a jewel, in the middle of the ashes. I suffered with my land; that is how I felt seeing it the first time, this land—a colleague of mine that I was going to support.
What will your rebuild look like?
I want to rebuild my studio in exactly the same place in which I also live. I had gifted my half of the house to my daughter Molly and her husband and two children. I was going to live in my studio for the rest of my life. That is why I wasn’t insured. We are not irresponsible; I don’t want people to think that, but the transfer had just happened and we were caught off guard. Kate Schermerhorn, my friend, has started a “ GoFundMe” (gofundme.com/hopeby80). Rather than begging, it feels like it is a tribute to “Filaree,” me and my time there at my home, which I much value.
What has been the hardest aspect of this experience for you?
All my life masks are gone, sculptures and paintings of the children growing; that whole happy period is erased, in terms of art. I feel sad for my children, especially Emily—she would always sit for me and go to Florence with me. My American life is completely erased with the five children, although I still have my Swedish life. (Inger currently divides her year between Malibu and Sweden). I have written a book, which is not published yet, about these years, and all the material for the book, including my son’s letters and music, (Nicholas drowned in 1987) is completely gone. Everything now has to do with the future. Losing the house can’t be compared to losing my son—I know the difference.
Any shining moments?
Well, I have to confess I have been worrying the last year, ‘How am I going to leave the artwork behind for my children to deal with?’ Somehow the good God did the job drastically. I am free of these concerns now and that is the highlight. And I can still paint and write, which is lucky.
What is the biggest challenge ahead for you?
To stay well. That is what I feel. I spend one whole hour every morning at the YMCA in Newport and I swim.
Any suggestions or advice for other displaced people?
I don’t think anyone who hasn’t gone through it can really relate and you don’t wish it on anyone. The implications are so vast: your friends are gone, your neighborhood is gone and everyone is dispersed. It is going to be hard to build up a new community. I have had to really work at getting my own company and that was the art community. Out of the 10 people who I have gathered through the Malibu Senior Center, eight of us have no studios or homes.
The strongest thought of all: I feel that firewall that came up the mountain and I don’t want to remember anything before that fire. I am allowing myself not to do it because if I did, I wouldn’t make it. I enjoy the fact that I am on a new planet and I really mean that. You simply have a clean slate.