January 31, 2018

Griggs Farm Fire Destroys Studio Of Local Artist Marina Ahun

DEVASTATING DAMAGE: The home and art studio of painter Marina Ahun is littered with clumps of insulation material that froze as firefighters battled the December 27 Griggs Farm blaze. While the fire did not spread to Ahun’s apartment, water damage and the caved-in roof took a significant toll.

By Anne Levin

A month after the devastating fire at Griggs Farm that took one life and left 35 residents homeless, Marina Ahun was allowed to return to her apartment to retrieve whatever she could. She gets emotional when recalling what she found.

“I completely lost everything,” said the artist, who emigrated from Russia a decade ago. “My apartment, which was located diagonal to the one where the fire started, was my studio and my home. The roof is open. The insulation between the ceiling and the roof was all over my stuff. Mixed with water, it froze and turned into a kind of concrete. I just care most about my art, which was hanging on the walls and all around.”

The December 27 fire at the 24-unit affordable housing building is believed to have been started by candles in the bedroom of Larisa Bartone, the 73-year-old tenant who perished in the fire. No foul play or electrical issues were involved, according to Princeton police. The building, owned and maintained by Princeton Community Housing (PCH), will take roughly a year to reconstruct.

Meanwhile, Ahun and several of her neighbors are being housed at an extended stay hotel, paid for voluntarily by PCH. Funds raised by that organization, Send Hunger Packing Princeton, Princeton’s Human Services department, and other agencies have helped. And Ahun, who has no renters’ insurance, is grateful.

“They greatly care about us and we are in a good environment at the hotel. I fully appreciate that and want to thank them,” she said. “But it is hard. I hope people will take from my experience and get renters’ insurance. It is very important.”

Ahun’s work, which spans realistic and expressionistic styles, is known to local residents through her watercolors of Princeton University buildings and architectural renderings of buildings around town. She was officially commissioned and licensed by the University, according to her website, which details her path to the United States after visiting in 2002 on a tourist visa. She was granted political asylum from religious persecution in a former Soviet bloc country, and became a U.S. citizen in 2012.

“Marina is the genuine article,” said her agent Greg Moore. “She has a superb education and a natural talent that got cultivated to a very high degree. I see her as a community treasure. There aren’t many artists of that caliber who come to Princeton and do the kind of work she has done. The loss of her ability to work is a bad thing. Getting her back on her feet is really important.”

While the fire did not burn through to Ahun’s apartment, water damage is extensive. Sections of her living room and kitchen collapsed, and the studio area is open to the sky. “It’s a mess,” Moore said.

An offer of temporary studio space for Ahun is on the horizon, but not confirmed. “The thing weighing on her mind most heavily is where she is going to live until the building is redone,” said Moore. “Princeton Community Housing has gone the extra mile by continuing to pay for them at the hotel, but that can’t go on indefinitely.”

To donate or offer temporary housing to homeless Griggs Farm residents, visit princetoncommunityhousing.org.