Mayor Lee Leffingwell cuts the ribbon at a ceremony and park party to dedicate “The Phoenix Rising”, an Oak Hill Village Mosaic Wall to commemorate the community’s perseverance after the Oak Hill fire of 2011.
by Bobbie Jean Sawyer
Neighbors filled Windmill Run Park on Sunday, May 5 to witness the unveiling of the Oak Hill Village Mosaic Wall, a community art project to commemorate the community spirit in the wake of the wildfires that devastated the South Windmill Run and Scenic Brook neighborhoods just over two years ago.
Titled “The Phoenix Rising,” the Keep Austin Beautiful-funded concrete wall is adorned with hand-painted ceramic tiles designed by community members, students, members of the local police and fire departments and even Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who attended the ceremony to dedicate the wall and to speak about the community’s perseverance.
“I remember being out here the first part of last year, watching the houses being reconstructed,” Leffingwell said. “There were several houses with folks that didn’t have insurance. Those houses were rebuilt faster than the houses that did have insurance. That’s kind of an indicator of how close this neighborhood is and how neighbors help neighbors out here in this neck of the woods.”
Leffingwell commended the city of Austin for taking necessary steps to prevent further damage and reduce the risk of fire.
“We suffered not as much as a lot of folks about six months later on Labor Day of that same year, when we had fires all around this city that were utterly devastating—from Bastrop to Spicewood to Steiner Ranch to Leander to Pflugerville—but almost none in Austin, and a lot of that is due to the proactive work that people in the city of Austin did.”
Constable Sally Hernandez also spoke, offering her support to the Oak Hill community.
“Two years ago the constable’s office played an important role in helping with the evacuation and the traffic control, and we want to continue to be a solution here in Precinct 3 by planning and preparing and working with all of you,” Hernandez said.
Carol Cespedes, who lost her home in the fire, said it was the immense support of the Oak Hill community that convinced her and her husband to rebuild their home and stay in the neighborhood.
“You never know the road you set out on until you’re well launched on it. But I’ll tell you, it’s been worth it,” Cespedes said. “We would not choose to do anything else and the reason is because we decided that this is a special place—natural beauty, wonderful vibrant Hill County flowers and wildlife, and an amazing neighborhood—a neighborhood that came together after a terrible disaster and helped each other and bonded with each other. At this point I think we feel like we’re just all one big family.”
Wanda Montemayor, art therapist and lead artist for the project, said the ‘Phoenix’ will stand as a reminder of the strength of the community and its people.
“This is much more than a mosaic. This is a visual landmark that tells the story of a community that is strong, that loves, that celebrates, that heals. Everyone that made a tile for this mural and everyone who comes and views this mural becomes a part of the community just by being a witness to everyone’s story,” Montemayor said. “This is something that will teach people who move to the neighborhood about what this neighborhood has gone through.”
Following the ceremony, attendees huddled around the wall to get a closer look at the tiles. Children eagerly sought out their hand and footprint tiles, while parents read the messages of love and support from locals and the surrounding community, including one tile from fire-ravaged Bastrop, reading “Bastrop Sends Love.”
Montemayor said taking part in the project has helped survivors come to terms with their grief.
“Talking about it no longer makes them want to just break down and cry,” Montemayor said. “They’re able to really get it out of their systems by putting it on clay and being able to talk about it.”
Kathy Morgan, an Oak Hill resident and lead artist, said she too has seen a bond created among neighbors.
“One of the silver linings was that it woke all of us up and we began to see each other beyond just the houses that were there,” Morgan said. “There were actually people that we could look at and make relationships with and carve out really cool connections. People began to talk to each other more. We smile more.”
Officer Jeffrey Binder, Region 4 district representative with the Austin Police Department, was one of the first on the scene on the day of the fire. Binder said he witnessed community members spring into action, offering evacuees a place to stay and bringing water and Gatorade to firefighters.
“As a community everybody sort of came together,” Binder said. “Look at all the people here—too often we don’t know our neighbors, we don’t talk to them; but this was something you see more and more nowadays, people coming together during tragedy.”
Lilly Henric lost her home in the fire, but with the help of neighbors she was able to move into her rebuilt home last year. Henric said the connections she made in the fire’s aftermath changed her perspective and helped her heal from the loss.
“You hear people say ‘We’re alive. That’s all that matters.’ That’s true. That’s something that I processed and came to believe,” Henric said. “Things cannot be replaced, but they’re not that important. They’re not what define your life. Look around and just enjoy the connections that you can make.”
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