Just before Christmas in 2010, at the winter solstice, the sky above the hills east of Arroyo Grande began to glow in the deep of night. The flush was coming from a barn. It was going up in flames.
But this wasn’t just any barn; it was metal sculptor Bill Walther’s building, a place where artists came to gather and work and just commune.
It was a tragedy for Walther and those who thought of his structure as the heart of their community.
Walther, who learned welding in the Army, created art there out of abandoned metal. Some of it was discarded by the Southern Pacific Railroad, for which he worked as a brakeman before an accident in 1986 put him in a wheelchair.
His barn had become a local landmark, a haven for art and artists and a mini-museum in its own right. He and his fellow artists gave birth to “a communal, creative atmosphere,” as See Canyon artist Kate Czekala described it. “It was alive with creativity.”
“I called it ‘The Art Barn,’ ” Czekala said. “The structure itself had become a work of art over time — the aged siding held a beautiful arched window that spanned the top floor.”
But after the barn turned to ashes, none of them, least of all Walther, sat around and moped.
They set about to rebuild it, and not just the physical structure. They wanted to make sure the “soulfulness” that infused the earlier place found a home in the new one.
“The building was a piece of art because of the people and the materials that went into it,” said Walther, 67. “Each piece of wood would remind you of an experience.”
This time around, Walther, who had physically worked on the earlier structure in the 1970s, had to hire out much of the work, which was frustrating for him.
“I hate the phrase ‘wheelchair-bound,’ ” he said, “but I’ll use it this once.” Not being able to do the work himself “gives the phrase new meaning,” he said.
“It’s a lot more fun to hammer nails with friends,” he said.
Frustrated or not, Walther guided the new building to fruition, although “we’re still sorting out the rusty steel,” he said.
The new barn has already taken on the mystique of its predecessor.
Inside, off to the rear, a phoenix made of old blades and other metal scraps shaped by Walther peers down on the new digs. Paintings by Mark Bryan, Barbara Laird and other local artists have begun to show up on the walls.
The landscape inside and out is dotted with the metal sculpture that is Walther’s work. A steam engine, put together from an old hot water heater, gas tank, auto rims and other material, sits outside.
In this new incarnation, there is a farming component. Walther and his son Ben, 25, are growing raspberries, peaches and other crops, using the building for materials and storage.
Ben has inherited his old man’s gift of gab and love of human beings. When you sit down with them, as I did recently, you soon want to put down the notebook and just shoot the breeze.
“I would rather talk to people than watch soap operas,” the elder Walther said. “Real people have real stories.”
Ben, a San Francisco State graduate, said he wants the place to become “a center for people getting together,” as it once was, working together and trading skills and stories.
“A community, a network,” Bill Walther said.
“Intergenerational,” added his son — “the new guard and the old guard.”
The old barn is down, the new barn is up. But in a sense it will never be finished. That’s not what the Walthers are all about. To them, the barn and the community that sustains it always will be under construction.