Santa Barbara’s El Paseo Restaurant is hosting a fundraiser for local artist Manuel Unzueta, who lost his entire life’s work when his studio burned down in March.
“Fifty years of work, my art, my paintings, my records — everything was gone in 15 minutes,” he told Noozhawk after the fire.
Unzueta, 64, is a well-known muralist, artist and lecturer in Santa Barbara City College’s Chicano Studies program. He has also volunteered with the city to design and paint murals through the Youth Arts Alliance Program, which includes the recently unveiled Eastside Library mural.
The fundraiser at El Paseo will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. this Thursday. The event is sponsored by the SBCC Extended Opportunity Programs and Services, the PARC Foundation, the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission and the Santa Barbara U.S./Mexico Sister Cities Committee.
A suggested donation of $15 includes appetizers, live music and a no-host bar. All proceeds will go to the Milagro Fire Fund Trust set up through Union Bank, formerly Santa Barbara Bank & Trust.
Even though the Santa Barbara City Fire Department had a quick response, the wooden structure behind Unzueta’s Eastside home burned beyond repair in minutes, destroying about 1,000 pieces of artwork, he estimates.
Fire investigators narrowed the fire down to an area of origin, but not a cause. Other fires in the Eastside area around that time have been deemed suspicious, but the De la Guerra Street fire wasn’t, at least after the initial investigation, Capt. Gary Pitney said at the time.
Unzueta had planned to donate a large part of his collection to UCSB next year, and many paintings were being saved to provide a financial future for his two children, Annette, 24, and Manuel, 17.
No one was injured in the fire, but several of the family’s pet birds and rabbits died.
For a moment, watching his life’s work in flames, he started to walk toward the structure before a shout from his son broke him out of his trance.
“I was hypnotized,” he said. “I wanted to die with my paintings.
Luckily, he stored a leather-bound scrapbook in the home. It’s full of clippings that go as far back as his Santa Barbara High School days, when his artwork was featured in The Forge, the school’s student newspaper. The book was in the house, and remains a record of his work as a prolific Mexican-American artist.
He attended high school and college in Santa Barbara, getting his master’s degree in fine arts from UCSB in 1975.
In addition to decades of paintings and drawing, he lost awards, historic photographs, academic lecture notes, a vintage vinyl record collection and musical instruments.
“Manuel’s ability to define and recognize the historic and cultural relevancy of the Mexican-American experience through his paintings and murals has made him a local treasure,” said Mark Alvarado, senior supervisor of the city’s Neighborhood & Outreach Services. In addition to his many local works on display, Unzueta’s work can be seen in Mexico City, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and other cities throughout North America.
“Manuel’s exemplary commitment to education and community service has been a beacon of hope and inspiration for thousands of students through his lectures in the city’s public schools, at Santa Barbara City College and UCSB,” Alvarado said in the statement announcing the fundraiser.
“The countless volunteer hours he has given to support community public art projects have added a distinct cultural flavor to our neighborhoods. Equally important, Manuel assisted and advised thousands of students as an EOPS counselor at SBCC. It was in this capacity that Manuel offered a safe haven for students challenged by higher education. Manuel has been an excellent mentor and has offered a different level of leadership for young people through his unique artistic perspective.”
Unzueta also sits on the La Cumbre Junior High Foundation that works to improve the health and wellness of children and families living in the Westside neighborhood.
“Manuel’s impact and contribution to the community of Santa Barbara has helped shaped our city’s cultural landscape through his art and teachings,” Alvarado said. “Thursday evening’s fundraiser will help give Manuel the strength and inspiration to continue his lifelong work and commitment to the community of Santa Barbara.”