How do you replace a life's work? The answer is you can't. Especially if you're an artist. But two D.C. painters are trying to reclaim something good from an inferno.

Rafiki Morris couldn't even look at his burned paintings at first. He says unfurling his charred paintings is a bit like performing an autopsy.
Ten of them were damaged or destroyed in a fire at his studio, including "One Nation Rising," which once hung in the South African Embassy.

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"It was just very. It's a very sad thing. It's a deep, deep loss," said Morris, about the blaze a week ago in the backyard studio he shares with Rik Freeman on Olive Street in Northeast, D.C.

Margarite Contreras and her husband awoke at 2:30 in the morning a week ago to an orange glow coming from the structure behind their house.

"I'm just looking at this building engulfed in smoke and flames, and my heart is just... I didn't know if I was going to have a heart attack or lose my mind or what," said Freeman. "It was just, here is my life, going up just like that."

The fire started in the back alley. Someone stole a 1998 Lincoln Town Car, parked it right next to the studio, and set it on fire.

"The fire went up, and took out the roof," said Contreras, "creating all this destruction here, where there was artwork, Rafiki's artwork here, my husband, Rik Freeman's artwork there."

The two artists had decades of their work stored in the studio.

Most of Rik Freeman's paintings were far enough away from the fire to survive. But he didn't know that when her ran into the backyard. "I started going into the building, and the firefighters said no, and kind of grabbed me. And by that time the smoke hit me, and woke me up."

But he said he would have given his life to save it. It's his legacy, how he'll be remembered.

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"If it came to artwork or me, well, you know, I've had a good time," he said. 

Morris hopes to create something good out of the tattered, charred remnants that remain of some of his most popular work. "I've pretty much arrived at this idea of fighting fire with paint and prose."

He's already planning his next exhibit.

"It's going to be called 'Fire in my Belly,'" he said. 

Take the pain and sorrow and make it art. It's what they always do.

"When they give you fire, make fire-ade," he said. 

The artists say they're still angry. They're furious that whoever torched the car and their art will likely never be caught. And they suspect he'll never know how much he destroyed.