BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) - Sheryl Bucsanyi , a 10-year veteran art and photography teacher at Bastrop High School , was about to become an inspiration to her students. Bucsanyi had been honored with her selection as "Artist of the Month" for February at the Bastrop Fine Arts Guild gallery.
She knew exactly which photographs she was going to exhibit.
"My show was going to be, 'Interesting People,'" Bucsanyi said. "I had a collection of photographs, 20 years worth at least, of people that I have photographed who are famous: anybody from Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Matthew McConaughey, Robert Rodriguez, Billy Bob Thornton, Jimmie Vaughan and then one of my favorites, B.B. King.
"So I was going to select my favorite shots of some of my favorite people I had photographed or interviewed and I was going to frame them and put them in the show."
First, though, Bucsanyi had some traveling to do. A graduate of Dickenson High School in the Galveston area, she took her dog and headed back to her home town for a visit with friends.
That's where she was when the phone calls started coming.
"I didn't have my phone on me," said Bucsanyi, "and when I did go get my phone, I saw it had, like 27 missed calls and I noticed the majority were from my brother-in-law.
"So I knew right then that something had happened. So I called my brother-in-law right a way and he told me about the fire."
Bucsanyi was stunned and immediately her thoughts turned to the animals she had left at home in the piney woods near Bastrop. There were two cats, Lorena and Augustus, and two horses, 22 year-old Splash and 4-year-old Capitan Pepper.
"Of course, the first thing I said was, 'Go get my horses; go get my cats.' He told me that he had already tried and they had everything blocked off and he couldn't get in to get my horses and my cats."
Worried about her "babies"
Bucsanyi immediately started driving back to Bastrop, desperately worrying about her "babies." When she arrived, she tried to get to her house, but she, too, was turned away by law enforcement at barricades. The next day, though, she and her sister found a way in.
"We had to move trees out of the road," she said. "There were power lines that were just hanging down and we had to pull those away. When we finally got to my road, in my driveway there was a big tree down in the driveway so we couldn't pull in."
So they started walking. Even from a distance, they could see Bucsanyi's house was gone. In fact, the remains still burned. There was more.
"We walked down there and there was Splash and she was OK; and right behind her, about 20 feet in the woods, there was Pepper on the ground."
The horse had apparently died of smoke inhalation. Nearby was the body of a cat. Its companion was never found.
At first glance, Splash didn't appear to be badly injured. There were some burns but things didn't look too bad at first. Here's why:
"Splash and Pepper were inseparable;" said Bucsanyi. "They had such a very strong bond.
"Splash was so feisty and stubborn and just full of spirit. She was very brave and I know she ran through the fire to get to where there was a safety area for her. Pepper was too scared; he wouldn't go.
"So Splash ran through the fire; I saw her hoof prints. She was running back and forth, telling him, 'Come on, come on, come on,' and he wouldn't go.
"A couple of days after the fire, I found this huge indention in the ground where we had found her standing up. I know what she did; she rolled and rolled and got the fire out on her body.
"So when we took her to the vet, we thought she was only burned on about 40 or 50 per cent of her body. But she had rolled so much and caked that sandy soil all over her body that we didn't know that she was actually burned just about 100 per cent of her body."
Still, local doctors and later, vets from Texas A&M University thought Splash might well survive. Her internal organs appeared to be functioning normally and she was eating and drinking water every day.
Bucsanyi started documenting the expected recovery with photographs.
"I've always had a camera on me, even in junior high and high school," she said. "I always had a camera. I was always taking pictures and it's just so much a part of me. It's who I am."
Photographing her pain
There was also another reason, the photographer turned to her camera.
"There was a famous photographer," said Bucsanyi, "named Richard Avedon and he said that he took pictures of things that he was afraid of.
"And when he took those pictures and he was able to get them out onto the paper, it was like him facing his fears.
"And I think with me, maybe, is I was taking pictures of things that were painful. And then once I took the pictures, I was getting it out."
So, camera in hand, Bucsanyi returned to her property every day.
"The main reason was to look for my kitty cat. I would go and leave cat food and water," she said.
"I think it also helped me to face
things. My next door neighbors, they haven't been back. They said they can't go back. There are other people who have said that; they just left; they're gone; they said they're not going to ever come back.
"But it was my home. It was my home. Whenever I moved into the RV park, I felt so much more at home whenever I went back to my property, even though it was all burned up and everything was gone. It was my home; it was my place; I felt comfortable there."
Then, from the vet, came the call Bucsanyi had most feared: Twenty days after the fire, her horse's skin had begun to fall away from her body and Splash had simply lain down and died.
Blessed in other ways
Meanwhile, those bowls of food and water she kept putting out at the burned property began to attract stray cats that had survived the fire. Buscanyi was even able to reunite one of them with its owner. She adopted another one, nursed its burned feet until they heeled and named it Peaches.
Friends and family pitched in at every opportunity. Former classmates in Dickinson offered to buy her two new horses.
Bucsanyi was blessed in other ways, as well. Firefighters from New Mexico had helped douse the flames on her land. Volunteers from Houston aided in the clean-up. And Amish builders were constructing a new house for her.
But by now, that February gallery exhibit was just around the corner. There was a problem, though: all those photographs of famous people were gone.
"I always tell my students to save their pictures onto a flash drive," said Bucsanyi, "save them here and there. Always be careful, especially with your good photographs. Well, I had all my memory cards and all my flash drives in this tea pot (in my house). They're all gone."
The idea hit quickly: Bucsanyi would exhibit the photographs she had taken throughout her recovery from the wildfire.
"They couldn't believe that I hadn't already written something about it. They said, 'Oh, Sheryl, you need to write about it; it will be good for you.'
"So I did and after I wrote the story about what happened, it was just a given: I've got to tell my story through photographs."
Many of the images are difficult to look at and the public reaction has been mixed.
"A lot of people have said negative things and a lot of people have said a lot of positive things," Bucsanyi said. "I knew people were going to be upset; I knew that people might get angry at me.
"And if people aren't disturbed about some of the photographs, then something might be wrong with them because some of my photographs are very disturbing. They are graphic; they're very painful. But art is not always pretty.
"Artists express their feelings and their thoughts and what I always tell my students is that photographs are supposed to evoke emotion and I think I've done a pretty good job of that."
Still, there was one last detail: Bucsanyi needed a name for the exhibit. She thought back to a photo she had taken of four of her students, jumping in the air at the far end of a tall tunnel, right where the light came through.
"It just came to me;" she said, "I'm going to call it, 'There is a Light.' To me, light has so many symbolic meanings. Where there's light, there's life.
"The definition of photography is writing with light. At the end of a tunnel there is always the light. And then, of course, you can always look at light as your God.
"There is a light. With all the support I've received, all the prayers and support from family and friends and strangers, they all have helped me see the light."
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