The Missing and the Found: The Art of Ray Gabaldon and Tona Wakefield

The Missing and the Found: The Art of Ray Gabaldon and Tona Wakefield

Article by  Stephen P. Huyler 

“In the California fires and floods of 2017-18, we lost all those people, 23 finally —so much damage, so much pain. I had to do something to remember them. That is how I began ‘The Missing.’ Every time I make one, I remember that day, I remember them…”

Ray Gabaldon

“I feel that the course of my life and the suffering inside and out that I have seen informs the work I do. My sculptures express those feelings.”

Tona Wakefield

Raymond Gabaldon, part Navajo, part Hispanic American, was born in 1949 and raised in a trailer outside Albuquerque, N.M. His father, a sawmill operator, found employment in Los Angeles when Ray was just eight. Life with his stepbrother and sister was fairly normal until Ray was riding his bike with a friend when they were 13. Both boys’ bodies were crushed and dragged in a head-on car accident. Hospitalized in a coma for a month with a subsequent concussion, Ray says that his brain was scrambled. He never did regain his full cognitive abilities. Reading and writing were difficult, but Ray was determined to overcome his disabilities. He found other ways to use his finely tuned intelligence.

At 23, he began working for Western Lithograph in Los Angeles. A photo shows a handsome young man operating a web offset press 125 feet long and two stories high. By the time he met Tona there in 1984, he was a pressman while she was a production planner.

Tona Wakefield had spent her first seven years on a cattle ranch in Arizona before her parents moved to Carpinteria, Calif., in 1958. They purchased a lemon orchard with an old house where Tona lived until she graduated from high school in 1969. During her childhood, it became apparent that members of her family suffered from mental health issues. Tona and her two younger sisters grappled with substance abuse. As the eldest sibling, Tona learned responsibility at an early age, developing a lifelong calling to advocate and care for those suffering with mental illness.

As Tona and Raymond first lived together and then married, Ray grew increasingly bothered by the stresses of urban life. When their first and only child, Teka, was born in 1993, the couple moved up the coast to be near Tona’s parents. After Los Angeles, they reveled in the clean air, the beaches, and the verdant agriculture of the region. Ray continued to commute 90 miles back to his L.A. printing job, finally leaving that business in 2006 to become a house framer in Santa Barbara County. For five years, he also built custom hot rods and trucks.

When both of Tona’s parents died in 1998, she felt overwhelmed by the complex issues within her family and sought guidance. She joined groups sponsored by NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, to better understand and cope with these concerns. Tona discovered her own compassion. She worked as a family advocate at the Mental Health Association and served on both Santa Barbara County’s Advisory Board on Drug and Alcohol Problems and the Mental Health Commission. From 2009-16, Tona was employed by a non-profit organization to work at the County Jail as a discharge planner, helping to connect individuals in custody with services once they were released back into the community. In 2017, she was hired by the Public Defender’s Office to work with incarcerated clients that suffered with serious mental illnesses as they were going through their legal processes. She retired during the summer of 2022.

Ray’s life was altered irretrievably by the Thomas Fire that destroyed almost 300,000 acres of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties in December 2017. Flames covered the mountains not far from their Carpinteria home and flash burned areas of their community. Although Ray and Tona were asked to evacuate, they stayed, spraying down their roof with water while ash grew half-an-inch thick on Ray’s truck. “I’ve never seen a fire move that fast or that big,” he remarked. “It took out maybe 50 acres near our house in less than five minutes! That really scared me.” When heavy rains drenched the mountains beginning on January 8th and 9th, further disaster ensued. “About 2:00 a.m., I heard a massive explosion, somewhere towards Montecito. It lit up the sky, and we were trapped. The floods had washed out the 101 Freeway on one side and another wash half a mile south of us. We couldn’t leave.”

Rainwater cascaded down the mountainsides above Santa Barbara, bringing with it avalanches of mud, rocks, huge boulders, trees, and bushes, picking up and destroying everything within its path. Within a day, thousands of people were suddenly homeless, everything they had known ripped from their lives. Utilities were wiped out, homes besieged with mud and debris, entire cars tumbled end over end down newly formed riverbeds. Countless people were missing: parents unable to find their children, elders lost in the confusion, families separated, and beloved pets gone. Local news reports spread globally describing mothers, fathers, babies buried in a sea of mud. Alarm and anxiety affected everyone.

Ray and a friend were contacted by someone who was out of town. They were asked if they could check on his Montecito house, to make sure it was still standing and rescue what they could of his possessions and invaluable art collection. “The highway patrol took us up the back route through Toro Canyon past boulders as big as this house. I knew that road well. They hadn’t been there before. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing! Our ride dropped us in upper Montecito near his house. His car was stuck up at a 45-degree angle on his gate. From the back of the garage in through the house, the mud was piled up to the counters, in some places even higher.”

The two men spent hours digging out their friend’s possessions: art, furniture, anything they could find. It took most of the day. In the late afternoon, exhausted and emotionally spent, Ray decided to walk rather than get a ride back home. Heading down to the coast, he navigated his way through rubble, mud, detritus, and the remnants of entire communities. The beach when he reached it was almost unrecognizable, strewn with wood, sticks, rocks, appliances, cars, bikes, toys: all the accumulated remains of mountainsides, gardens, and countless destroyed houses. “I’ve never seen such devastation in my life! Cars smashed so that you couldn’t even tell what they were. Houses all crushed and gone…I was numb with it all. It was low tide and somehow, I walked the five miles home by the beach.

“As I was walking, I looked down and saw a piece of wood that looked like a face. At first, I didn’t think much about it. I just picked it up and brought it home in my pocket. But then I began to realize it looked human. It had personality. The next day I went back to the beach and started picking up sticks that had been brought down from the mountains, some of them still charred from the fires. I realized that I could make a figure to represent the people we lost. That was the beginning of what I later named ‘The Missing.’ It really hurt inside. We didn’t know how many people we had lost. I knew I had to do something to mourn their loss. I returned with a bag strapped to my back and found the wood to create my first big man. And then I kept going back.”

Over the next weeks, months, and years, Raymond Gabaldon returned again and again to the beaches just south of Montecito, searching the flotsam, finding echoes of faces, torsos, and limbs that spoke to him of the 23 people lost in that flood. He transformed his tool shop at home into a workspace where he could lay out and reconstruct the bodies of the missing. As he assembled the parts, each figure had its own character, a personality that spoke of an individual.

From the burnt wrecks of friends’ houses, Ray salvaged copper wire that he that he used to join the various body parts. To some, he added flattened copper embellishments: a spiral above the heart, a coiled armband, a necklace, and sometimes facial features. His work was a compulsion to keep finding and creating these figures. Although he had no intention of exhibiting his sculptures, friends began to learn of them, and Ray generously gave them away.

In the meantime, Tona closely observed Ray’s transformation. When her work would allow, she joined her husband on the beach, finding his enthusiasm infectious. Tona had always been a scavenger – picking up interesting shapes and objects wherever she saw them – on a trail, on the beach, or at garage sales and flea markets. Their home is filled with a delightful and fascinating array of memorabilia and ephemera that she has tastefully and thoughtfully arranged.

So as Ray continued his focus on uncovering the parts of his “Missing” on the tide line, Tona found a different assortment of discarded and wave-tumbled objects, some natural, others industrial. She, too, began carrying a bag to the beach to bring home her new treasures.

After months of witnessing the unfolding of Raymond’s new creativity, Tona joined him in the workshop. She conceived her own unique array of sculptures. “It’s interesting” she comments, “how they come together. Ray’s out there picking up things for his people. Mine are more like animals, or perhaps a spirit. Some make me laugh when I put them together, others are menacing. I think my figures reflect my life and my work…”

A majority of the people Tona worked with in the jails were the homeless and disenfranchised, incarcerated for crimes associated with their desolate conditions: theft, substance abuse, violence, and the perceived infringements on the rights of other citizens. Tona’s own familial experiences underlie her empathy with the life struggles of the mentally ill: individuals she came to know so well. Her sculptures reflect that compassion. “My job was to work with community partners to reconnect people and their families with services that could help them recover – attempting to stop the ongoing cycles of rearrest.

“I’ve lost the person I always knew as my nephew to mental illness, violence, and drugs. Ray and I raised Rayven as our own son who now identifies themself as transgender. And yet they seem beyond our help, in prison again and again. It’s just so painful! I know that many other families deal with these kinds of tragedies and feel that there is nothing they can do! It is beyond our control.

“I guess my figures are some kind of release, my way to process grief and suffering in a subliminal way. The sculptures sort of assemble themselves. Each comes together quickly and then it is ready. I sort of stand back amazed by the result: its personality is its own.”

Tona Wakefield’s sculptures have yet to be exhibited anywhere. They are private for her – blossoming from her own unconscious. Although many of her figures employ some of the same materials as Ray’s, they could not be more different in character. His art truly is focused on his visceral response to the Thomas Fire and the subsequent flood. Tona’s art reflects her lifetime of experiences with troubling states of mind equally balanced by her ready sense of humor. Some are deeply serious, but others express whimsy and a joyous freedom of movement that juxtapose the suffering that this artist knows so well.

Shapes that resemble shamanic daggers remind the viewer of tribal connections to the spirit realms. A figure created from a round seedpod radiating spikes of metal and twisted wood seems to dance in delight. She’s combined driftwood, curling roots, and straw to suggest a being screaming from the soul, while an elongated birdlike figure with stag-horn button eyes and a fluid headdress of sticks, burrs, and dried leaves is guaranteed to bring a smile. Like her husband, Tona has found her milieu. Now retired, she’s in the workshop most days experimenting with combinations of found materials, adding perhaps a stone or a shape in rusted iron, removing a piece of wood, and replacing it with some thorny bark until her creation appears to have a life of its own. Tona’s work enriches her world.

Raymond Gabaldon’s sculptures are slowly being noticed by the Santa Barbara art world. Two galleries have exhibited his figures over the past year. Although true to his original vision, Ray keeps experimenting with new materials. Last year he built stands of steel to support some of his Missing. He assembled a grouping of three small figures that poignantly remind the viewer of relationships lost. He’s added pounded silver instead of copper to enhance the characters of some, while lightly torching the surface of others to underscore the ravages of fire. The walls of a garage studio outside Ray and Tona’s house are covered with pegboard upon which hang dozens and dozens of the Missing, each expressive of poignant personality, collectively calling out for remembrance.

This January, exactly five years later after the floods, heavy rains have caused the evacuations of hundreds of houses near Ray and Tona’s Carpinteria home, in Montecito, and in Santa Barbara. But without recent fires, regrowth of natural vegetation on the mountainsides during the intervening years has prevented similar mudslides this time. The damage and destruction are recoverable but serve as a reminder of the devastating potential of nature’s power.

STEPHEN HUYLER is an art historian and cultural anthropologist who has spent the past 51 years conducting a survey of the rural art and crafts of India. His particular focus has been Indian women’s art and identity. A native of Ojai, Calif., Stephen has developed a close friendship with Ray and Tona over the past year.

As seen in the Folk Art Messenger:

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