Many know of and or experienced the Thomas Fire: a fire that threatened multiple areas including Santa Paula, Ventura, Ojai, Fillmore, and eventually Santa Barbara County. The fire began on December 4, 2017, and continued its reign for 40 more days. Then, like dominos, on January 9, 2018, Montecito experienced a horrible mudslide that took not only homes but lives. Emotions overtook everyone quickly, but one man, in particular, decided to angle his emotions at something different.
Ray Gabaldón is a man who has resided in Santa Barbara for the past 28 years. Like many others, he had the misfortune of experiencing both the Thomas Fire and the Montecito Mudslide. On January 9, 2018, the day of the mudslide, Gabaldón decided to walk along the beach with hopes of collecting the whirlwind of thoughts and emotions he was experiencing. Whilst walking, he began to see pieces of driftwood that resembled a face in the sand. This experience triggered something inside of him, and so he began making wooden stick figures that soon became a collection of pieces dedicated to the lives lost. He called this collection “The Missing,” and though he did not begin selling these figures till a couple years later, once he did, he decided that 20% of the proceeds would be donated to his local fire department as a thank you for the incredible work they did and continue to do.
One of the many reasons that this collection has importance is that everything used to make these figures (besides a little bit of glue!) is locally sourced. The wood are pieces of driftwood collected from local beaches, and the copper detailing comes from a friend of Gabaldón’s houses that tragically burned in the Thomas Fire. “It hasn’t been easy, ” says Gabaldón. “It’s pretty hard, but I’m very determined.”
Despite the difficulties he faces, he has continued to expand the collection. He has now made more than 200 pieces, all completely unique. When asked what his collection, “The Missing” means to him, Gabaldón had an incredibly meaningful response.
“It means that we lost a lot of souls. And to me it’s personal because I’m half Navajo and so when you lose something, it is like you lost a part of your soul. I always look at it as a soul coming out of each one of the figures,” said Gabaldon.
The Navajo are a community native to the southwestern region of the United States and are well known for their handwoven rugs and blankets. When making these handwoven pieces, the Navajo always leave a piece out as a symbol to honor the souls lost. This is how Gabaldón feels about each unique piece of his collection.
The tragedy of the Thomas Fire and the Montecito Mudslide made a large impact on not only Gabaldón but many others. That is why it is important to remember and honor the lives lost. The community of Montecito holds a memorial every year, honoring the 23 lives lost in the mudslide, a few yet to be found. They will forever be remembered and in not only our hearts, but every wooden figure dedicated to them.