The Story Catcher Mailbox Project was created in early 2018 in response to the community's devastating debris flows. It has been installed in various locations since then and is currently installed at 609 State St. in downtown Santa Barbara outside Wylde Works. Credit: Grace Kitayama / Noozhawk photo

In the wake of the Thomas Fire and subsequent Montecito debris flows, artist Danielle Siano created the Story Catcher Mailbox Project — a 7-foot-6-inch-tall steel mailbox weighing close to 1,000 pounds.

Since it was created in 2018, it has been installed as a temporary public art piece in downtown Santa Barbara, at local arts centers, and at festivals.

It’s currently located in front of Wylde Works at 609 State St.

One side of the box is for letters of praise and the other side is for letters of grief. On Tuesday, the submitted letters will be read aloud at an open mic event at Wylde Works.

In early 2018, Santa Barbara County’s Office of Arts and Culture asked for artists’ submissions for art on State Street in response to the tragedy of the post-fire debris flows which killed 23 people and devastated the community.

“It was just a lot of destruction and a lot of grief all at once,” Siano said. “A lot of people suffering and no one knew what to do, you know, and we were all kind of looking to the usual people who have answers and no one had answers. It was just kind of silent.”

Siano said the idea for the project came from Martín Prechtel’s book, “The Smell of Rain on Dust,” which discusses how grief and praise are “basically two sides of the same coin.” 

“If you are loving something, at some point, you’re aware of its impermanence and the fact that you will at some point, lose that thing that you love,” Siano said. “So there’s inherently a little bit of grief, even in moments of praise. And when you’re deep in grief for something that you’ve lost, it’s because you’ve loved it, you know, so the deeper you grieve the more you’ve loved it.”

Siano said that the basis for healing is through connection with others and realizing that you’re not alone and she wanted to make the box big and study enough to handle as many stories of grief and praise as possible.

“It’s a project for anybody who has loved, ever,” Siano said.

Siano created the mailbox with the help of five people — Mike Kent, Jonah Blossom, Jay Plaehn, Tony Figueroa and Joy Voigt — who had heard about the project and taken interest in it.

Kent was the only person Siano knew prior to the project. All the other members she had met during the month-long process of building the Mailbox. 

“I think getting the right people on the project was really important,” Siano said “And they happen to really be wonderful connections for me personally there was love that was created out of the making of this project.” 

Siano was paid $750 for the project, however, the materials alone cost her $2,000. Siano worked with her friends at the Santa Barbara Hackerspace in Goleta and in her friend’s garage.

The project debuted on State Street in front of the Granada theater in April 2018.

Those who submitted their letters were invited back to hear them read aloud by Siano’s friend Alexis Slutzky, a therapist who is trained in counseling, mentoring and education on grief.

“We had weekly readings right outside the mailbox on the street there and those readings were recorded. They’re available on the website as well. And we live streamed to them on social media,” Siano said.

She said the goal was for people to connect with the community and learn they were not alone, hearing the letters read aloud.

The mailbox was on State Street for three months and then was displayed at the Summer Solstice Festival, the Carpinteria Arts Center, and the Aloha Arts Festival.

Siano moves the mailbox with a rental from Giffin Equipment and said that it takes around four people to move the box because it weighs close to 1,000 pounds

Siano said her idea was originally for the mailbox to move to all the towns that were affected by the fires and the debris flows, but the project was put on hold until this year.

The Story Catcher Mailbox Project moved to its current spot after Siano heard from a friend that Dylan Wylde, founder of Wylde Works, wanted to create community at his brewery.

“He was just very supportive,” Siano said. “He helped me — he himself came and helped me move the mailbox.”

Siano became close with the people she worked with on the project and even started a five-year romantic relationship with someone she met through the project that recently ended. She said with the mailbox being displayed again, she can process the relationship through her art.

“I’m actually having to process a lot of my own emotions,” Siano said. “And so it’s a great opportunity to be able to live and breathe my own art project, which I think is really rare. But it’s a really meaningful piece in a lot of ways.”

Letters can be submitted at the Story Catcher Mailbox Project in front of Wylde Works at 609 State St.

There will be a letter reading at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 13, at Wylde Works followed by a musical performance by Glen Phillips at 7 p.m. 

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Grace Kitayama, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Grace Kitayama is a Noozhawk staff writer.