Nine months after a hellish wildfire, the deadliest in California’s history, swept through Paradise, a child’s narrowed eyes look toward the sky and away from the charred ground.
It is Eleanor Weddig, her image stamped on the remains of her family’s home – a moment in time, captured among the ashes.
After a tragedy, the human instinct is to help. Some people do it by volunteering their time, others by writing a donation check. Shane Grammer’s natural response is to do what he does best — put spray paint to surfaces around him, and transform them into art.
“I feel like I’ve been able to, in a small way, bring joy into something that is so devastating,” Grammer said.
He is one of 44 artists who will take part in the nation’s largest mural festival, Wide Open Walls, in Sacramento kicking off Thursday and running through Aug. 18.
Grammer’s work in the Camp Fire burn zone has gained national media attention amid a career connected to the theme park industry and Disney Imagineering.
Since January, Grammer, a 47-year-old Los Angeles-based artist and Chico native, has been going back and forth to Paradise to foster hope through a series of murals. The mural titled “Eleanor” is just one of 19 that Grammer has created in the community.
After the Camp Fire, some of the first images Grammer saw of the fire engulfing Paradise were on Facebook. His childhood friend, Jennifer Edwards, and her husband, Shane, posted a picture of their burned home.
While the property was an unrecognizable ruin, Grammer instantly knew it would become a home for one of his murals. “As devastating as it was, I really wanted to paint it and paint something that brought hope in the middle of complete destruction,” he said.
A single chimney protruded from the charred rubble on the Edwards’ property – it would be Grammer’s canvas.
He saw an opportunity to transform “broken environments” into a canvas for his art – something Grammer started practicing two or three years earlier.
“So here I am standing in rubble, knowing that people lost, I mean lost their lives, but lost their home and their valuables and things that they’ve spent their life working to build and that that’s hard,” Grammer recalled. “It’s emotionally draining. And you’re walking around it all.”
For the mural on Edwards’ chimney, Grammer used graffiti art – a medium that first captivated him in junior college. He chose Montana 94, a transparent graffiti paint designed to not obscure the surface of what he was painting on.
“I wanted the texture to come through. My goal was that the artwork felt like it was a part of the fire or was a part of the structure – like a life of its own with it,” he said.
Shane Edwards stood by and watched while the mural took shape. “We [were] extremely honored,” Edwards said on a Facebook Live video that Grammer recorded. “We loved Shane’s work for a long, long time. As you can see it turned out beautiful … It’s one of the first things you see from the street, so, just the fact to kind of share that there’s hope, that God can bring beauty in devastation.”
Grammer named this first piece “Beauty From Ashes,” a representation of what would follow.
Since then, 19 murals have been created in Paradise. But as more time passed, debris from the Camp Fire continued to be removed from properties – along with the murals.
In an Instagram post of one mural being cleared away, Grammer wrote, “I know it wasn’t easy for them to take the mural down. But in all honestly that is part of the process. I knew these murals were going to have a beginning and an end but I am forever grateful that they have brought hope and joy to so many people throughout paradise and now the world.”
That was the fate of his first mural, on the Edwardses’ property, along with several others.
The Weddig family is expecting a call anytime now that the “Eleanor” mural will be removed from their property as well.
The mural of young Eleanor’s profile, spray-painted on a chunk of brick wall taller than she is, is the closest the 9-year-old has come to seeing the remains of her family home after the Camp Fire.
For Greg Weddig, Grammer’s mural was a chance to have Eleanor back with her family at the only home she’s ever known.
“When I saw her up there, I felt like, and especially when we were up there together, a few weeks after Shane painted it, it really felt like our whole family was together up there,” said Greg.
Although Eleanor wants to keep her mural, only a few will be spared from Grammer’s series.
But that doesn’t stop him.
“It wasn’t until later that I really kind of started to pursue that as a purpose. I like it because it keeps me focused on what’s important and using my gift (as an artist) to help other people is very important,” he said.
With this in mind, Grammer plans to create his mural for Wide Open Walls on Del Paso Boulevard at Arden Way, in the Old North Sacramento neighborhood.
After previously living near Sacramento for 16 years with his wife and three daughters, Grammer felt he didn’t want a prominent location in the city. Instead he chose an area where he believes his work will make more of a difference.
“So my goal is that I’m painting something that’s beautiful that would encourage people that are devastated, that there is hope for the future,” he said.
Both Grammer’s upcoming work on Del Paso Boulevard and his series in Paradise share an underlying message of hope for the future.
Although distinctly different in style, the mural Grammer has planned for Wide Open Walls will be similar in theme to murals found in Paradise. He will create a woman of color with a red rose in her hair – part of “The Bride Series” Grammer has been working on for the past 15 years.
At Paradise High School, a woman’s image is prominently displayed on a communal wall. She is beautiful, surrounded by flowers, dripping down with specks of black and white paint. Her eyes and red stained lips draw attention.
Across Paradise, representations of similar women were inspired by Grammer’s interpretation of a book in the Bible, the Song of Solomon. In his interpretation, the love story between the king and a dark Shulamite woman represents Jesus’ love for humankind.
Faith is no stranger to Grammer’s life and work. “The Bride Series” is about God the father loving his creation and seeing God the same way Grammer sees his earthly father.
To him, religion helped save his family. While Grammer said his mom and dad both share love and pride over who he is today, he feels he grew up in turmoil following the death of his biological father at a young age and his relationship with his stepfather growing up.
“When my parents got saved and we started going to, going to church, it just completely changed the dynamics in the destruction that was going on with our family that we had,” Grammer said. “Life was not perfect, but it was a heck of a lot better than where it was.”
“So ‘The Bride Series’ is not, I’m not just telling Paradise that God loves them but I’m also telling myself,” Grammer said. “I’m holding up a mirror and reminding myself that God the Father loves me, its creation.”
At Wide Open Walls, Grammer will share one of his largest murals yet: a creation spanning up to 60 feet wide for everyone to see.