Jeff Jardine

Couple’s artworks, collectibles lost in Butte fire flames

Donna Graver remembers Christmas of 1939 well, even though she was just 5 years old at the time.

“I got a Shirley Temple doll,” she said.

It became the first in her collection of valuable dolls that grew to 3,000 over the next 76 years – a lifetime of collecting, of creating, of cherishing.

Graver collected one-of-a-kind Sasha dolls and Storybook dolls made in the 1930s and 1940s. She collected every kind of doll worth collecting. All of them are gone now, except for a few porcelain doll heads found in the rubble she once called home near Mountain Ranch in Calaveras County.

All of her dolls, her own paintings, drawings and other artworks, her collection of animal skulls, important family documents and more are no more. The Butte fire that began in Amador County but did the vast majority of its damage in Calaveras County destroyed the home the former Modestan and her husband Dale Laitinen owned near Mountain Ranch.

The fire is nearing 100 percent containment, but not until it burned nearly 71,000 acres, claiming two lives, destroying 475 homes, 343 outbuildings and 42 other structures. All of the residents who were burned out lost everything they couldn’t move out in a hurry. Many, like Laitinen and Graver, weren’t home when the fire approached, and had little opportunity to save their possessions. Each person has a story to tell about the loss of property or animals.

Raised in Ceres, Laitinen is an accomplished artist and art teacher whose watercolor pieces depict everything from landscapes to dams, buildings and other man-made structures. Sifting through the ashes on Friday, he found pieces of some of his watercolor paintings along with a tube of cobalt-blue oil pigment that hardened in the extreme heat.

To artists, losing their creations is just as depressing as losing any other possession.

“People say things like, ‘They’re only things,’ ” Laitinen said. “But when you’re an artist, everything you do has meaning.”

Laitinen, 63, was in Mendocino teaching art when the fire broke out Sept. 9 in Amador County but quickly jumped the Mokelumne River and into Calaveras County. He got a call that it had burned 50 acres. By the next morning, it had consumed roughly 1,500 acres and was out of control. Meanwhile, Graver was visiting her son and his family in San Ramon. At 81 and experiencing health issues, she didn’t want to stay alone in their forest home they bought in 1994.

Laitinen rushed home to Mountain Ranch and had time to get only some family photos, their two cats, his computers and some valuable artwork by other artists before he had to evacuate. Everything else went, including heirloom possessions.

“My grandmother’s diaries,” said Graver, who planned to return to their property this weekend for the first time since the fire. She’s staying with her son and his family in Modesto, where she grew up and taught art lessons privately until the couple moved to the foothills. “I never got to read them.”

All that remains of his life’s work is what is on display in galleries, in the homes of those who bought his paintings, or as photo images in his computer.

Over the next few weeks they will sift through the ashes, not expecting to find much. The items that survived in the best condition were pottery pieces by longtime Modesto Junior College art instructor Stan Holtz. The irony? They’d been fired in an oven.

“The glaze is still good,” Laitinen said, inspecting one of them.

Their home and his studio were insured for the structures and basic possessions. But his artwork and her collections were not insured separately. It’s often too difficult to predetermine the value of a piece or a collection.

“It’s almost impossible to insure unsold art,” Laitinen said. “It’s a risk almost all artists take. There’s an intrinsic value of what you think it’s worth, and what the market will bear.”

Like some others burned out, he tries to maintain his sense of humor. The couple’s Toyota Prius was completely destroyed, its windows and tires melted and paint completely burned off.

“The Prius gained a new artistic quality,” he said, looking at its burned-out hulk. What else can he do? His studio was filled with watercolor and oil paintings he said would have brought in tens of thousands of dollars “based on the prices I’ve gotten in the past,” he said.

The vineyards and orchards on their 13 acres burned as well. They won’t rebuild, he said. They will look for another home in a less-remote location, and preferably with a detached garage he can convert to another studio so he can resume his career.

“Somewhere closer to a town or nearer to a highway,” he said. “We already were coming to a point where we were looking at figuring a different strategy for living here. It’s been forced on us now. The way I have to look at it is that I have to get a new canvas, make the first brushstroke and start over again.”

And somewhere in the ashes are the cremains of Graver’s Shirley Temple doll, which she’d kept in its original costume since that Christmas morning in the late 1930s.

It outlasted Shirley Temple herself by nearly two years.