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Burned art haven was 'alive with creativity'

jmellom@thetribunenews.com

When the alarm sounded one stormy night last week, it portended something unfortunate but not especially surprising: A barn was on fire in rural Arroyo Grande. Hey, this is farm country; barns burn, right?

But a lot more than hay went up the night of Dec. 20 when metal sculptor Bill Walther’s barn smoked and flamed and sizzled until there was nothing left but rubble.

Walther’s barn was a local landmark, a haven for art and artists and a mini-museum in its own right. Walther and his fellow artists gave birth to “a communal, creative atmosphere,” as See Canyon artist Kate Czekala describes it. “It was alive with creativity.”

“I called it ‘The Art Barn,’ ” Czekala wrote in an e-mail to The Tribune. “The structure itself had become a work of art over time — the aged siding held a beautiful arched window that spanned the top floor.”

“It had interesting old doors installed 20 feet off the ground that went nowhere. It was a work of art.”

Czekala wrote that the artists who used Walther’s space “left their many touches: a stone wall with mosaics and creative forms embedded all along it, stained glass windows constructed by various artists.

“Beautiful flower gardens (were) grown in exchange for working space. Paintings were everywhere, on the wall, in progress on an easel and stored in the rafters.”

Walther, who learned welding in the Army, created art out of abandoned metal, some of it discarded by the Southern Pacific Railroad, for which he worked as a brakeman before an accident in 1986 put him in a wheelchair.

He had his own creations in the barn, as well as his workshop. He lost that, but much of his work remains in his main house up the hill, as well as scattered over his property.

But the site of the barn is now debris. The cause of the blaze remains under investigation.

Two days after the fire, artist Barbara Laird, who had been using the premises, was sifting through the remains and finding little left of her stained glass pieces.

“I lost everything,” she said. “Yay! Free as a bird.”

Up the hill, Walther, 66, sat in his wheelchair writing an obituary for the barn that had been a central part of his life for nearly four decades.

He built it with recycled materials and often gave shelter to folks who needed it.

“Artists are notoriously poor,” he said with a smile.

Walther raised two children there, and the place was a haven for local teen-agers. A baby was born in the barn. He and Carol Nielson were married there.

He doesn’t know what will come next.

“This may be a sign for me to move on,” he said. “But I don’t really want to. I love this place.”

Rebuilding? Perhaps. But Walther worries he could never replicate the structure that grew up, erratically, eclectically and creatively over time, especially if he builds according to the conformist standards that are expected today.

“I’d probably end up with some soulless piece of metal. It’ll be safe. It’ll be clean. But it’ll be heartless.”

In the meantime, he may hold a service during the vernal equinox. “We might have a memorial service the first day of spring.”

In the long run, he and his fellow artists will be trying to re-create — someplace — the atmosphere that Czekala describes so eloquently.

“It seems,” she wrote, “we have few spaces that have such a communal, creative atmosphere. Bill created that over time. It always felt so welcoming to visit — to bring a picnic lunch, to collaborate on a sculpture or just to chat. You would leave feeling more inspired than when you arrived.”

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