DTLA Artists

Artists Hedy Torres, Surge Wiltrön, Jesse Fregozo, Jenny Newman, Kentaro Yoshimura, Emily Ennui, Lee Dobbs and Paul Juno pose for a portrait outside of their studios in Downtown LA that burned down on June 8, 2021.

Art supplies can be repurchased, but when artists’ studios are destroyed, it’s impossible to recreate the works. 

That’s why 11 local artists are suing the property owners of the three-story commercial building in DTLA that burned down on June 8, 2021. The lawsuit claims that they were negligent in preventing the fire that took more than 150 firefighters to extinguish and involved an explosion and massive ball of flames.

Owned by L for Lofts LLC, the building was destroyed by the fire, which caused massive loss of sculptures, murals, paintings, equipment, documentation and personal mementos.

“Buildings like this don’t suddenly catch fire and burn to the ground without at least negligence,” said Cyrus Shahriari, the attorney representing the artists. 

“We believe, based on what my clients have observed in their experience in the building, that there were not adequate fire prevention measures.” 

L for Lofts LLC did not respond to a request for comment.

Shahriari said the artists noted a lack of working fire sprinklers, adequate fire extinguishers or firestop doors. They don’t believe the walls were made of material that was not flammable. 

He said several artists raised concerns with the management company after a 2016 fire in Oakland destroyed artist studios. 

“This is a place where it was foreseeable that this type of incident could happen or that there was a risk of fire,” Shahriari said. 

“There are basic fire requirements and codes that should have been followed and we don’t believe they were.”

The artists say their losses are immeasurable. 

Multimedia artist Paul Juno spent seven years working in his Little Tokyo Art Complex studio. A self-proclaimed workaholic, he paints every day. His studio, he said, was a place where he poured out his soul. As an artist who experiments with his style, he said some paintings take years to create so he always has many works in progress.

“Words can’t even come to mind how devastating it is to lose things like that,” Juno said. “You can’t really make those things again.”

An art history student, he said artists always look at their early works. Galleries host retrospectives so people can compare the years of a career.

That will never be possible for any of these artists. 

“I lost 10 to 12 years’ worth of work,” Juno said. “That stuff’s lost forever. I told myself I’d photograph it once I moved out of the studio. Now I obviously will never get a chance to do it.”

He called his stored works “a visual savings account.” He’s not selling them now, but in the future there might be a market for it.

“I can help my future self with the stuff I put forward,” Juno said. “It’s one of those things you do as a younger artist. Now I’ve got to start from scratch completely. I put everything in that studio. My studio was overflowing to the brim.”

He said some pieces were collaborations with other visiting artists; moments he can’t relive.

“To say it’s devastating is putting it lightly,” Juno said. “It’s one of those things that brings panic attacks. I have nightmares of my home being on fire.”

Surge Witron creates large acrylic gestural abstract paintings and he had two studios in the building over the past six years. 

“I lost a whole body of work — not just materials, but an archive of artwork, research and indicators of things I’ve done in my art practice,” Witron said. “It’s painful thinking about not having anything to show for it because I lost about nine years of work to the fire.”

Witron, who moved to this studio right after finishing grad school, had experienced two other losses right before the fire. In 2020, one of his grandfathers died from COVID-19. Then in the months before the fire, he lost his other grandfather.

“It was just this constant cycle of just losing and losing,” Witron said. “I couldn’t get through with the grief. I had to seek therapy.”

The studio space represented community for Witron and the other artists who worked there. 

“It was a very communal space,” Witron said. “As artists we engage with each other. It allows us to really digress from our work and really see moments of where you get either stuck or you’re constantly editing. Having these conversations with fellow artists in the community space allows you to push your work forward. That’s something I lost from not being there.”

Like Juno, he said he can’t survey his work because his early pieces from his 20s are gone. 

The effects are profound. Witron said he can’t work in his new space, as he still grapples with anxiety and loss. He wants to see accountability for what happened.

The art studio in Little Tokyo was Emily Dobbs’ first studio. In 2021, she had just finished a show called “Identity Dysmorphia,” related to a theory she cultivated about displaced individuals and their cultural backgrounds. All that work was destroyed. For the next eight months, she stopped making art because she, too, worried it would disappear. 

She had artwork dating back to 2007 and mementos dating back to when she was 7 years old. Worse yet, she lost the only things she had of her birth parents who died in the Korean Air Flight 801 crash in 1997.

“When I learned my birth parents died, I was numb, I could not fully react,” Dobbs said. “(Losing the studio) was equivalent to the feeling of me losing my parents, because this was everything I’ve created for myself. This is not just work, or items or monetary loss. This is sentimental value. This is our time. These are our thoughts, history, identity, memories, all in this location. The creative life force of what we were able to have there was gone in a night.”

Hedy Torres is a Mexican immigrant who works as an advocate for the homeless. She had just moved into the studio in March 2021, but she lost five years’ worth of paintings, a projector and many materials. She had a series she was going to show focusing on people who are experiencing homelessness. She lost all but a single painting which was in her home apartment.

“Remembering that night makes me want to cry. It really hurts so much,” Torres said.

She learned of the fire through an email. She took time off her job to go to the building. The first thing she noted was that the roof was gone. Any hope of things being rescued from the building evaporated.

“Everything was closed and there were still a lot of fire trucks,” Torres said. “It was super shocking.”

Jesse Fregozo’s art focuses on the struggles of marginalized communities. He said it took him down his life’s darkest path.

“Even if my house burned down, it’s just material stuff,” Fregozo said. “But an art studio is much more intimate. It’s like the stuff you cannot redo. The work will never be the same.”

He spent much of his quarantine time in his studio creating art and teaching art workshops electronically from that space. 

Fregozo built his portfolio. He archived his art, which harkened back to elementary school. While he has a few digital copies of his work, 98% of it is completely gone.