Fires of Change was on display at the Coconino Center for the Arts from September 5 through October 31, 2015. The exhibition asked viewers to rethink what wildfire means in the West; fire, in its own unique way, is as essential to a healthy forest as is water. Participating artists spent a week in Fire Science Bootcamp before they begin creating art for the exhibition. They learned from scientists, land managers and firefighters about the realities and science of fire ecology. In this way, the exhibition was steeped in accurate science and sound principals. Fires of Change was curated by Shawn Skabelund.
The art work in Fires of Change is shown in photographs below, separated by artist. Click on any image to view a larger image and slideshow of that artists’ images. Also included is a plug-in that allows you to listen to Steven Yazzie’s audio piece, Forest of Words, and a link to Kathleen Brennan’s film, the matter of life and death.
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We are also pleased to announce that a printed catalog for Fires of Change is now available for purchase! Click here to preview the catalog.
Before the mysteries
a forest contains
had been explained
it was claimed by those
who lived close enough to know
that trees talk
and all it takes to hear them
is that you listen,
who come from far away
and trust only
a language you already understand.
by David Chorlton, for Fires of Change
Bryan David Griffith – Broken Equilibrium
In Western culture we traditionally view dualities—light and darkness, life and death, forest and fire—as opposing forces with horns locked in an epic struggle of good vs. evil. We see ourselves as stewards of the land, and fight nobly to preserve life and subdue death by taming nature to prevent unpredictable disasters like wildfire.
My work explores the idea that these forces aren’t opposed, but rather part of the same continuous cycle. One can’t exist without the other. Death is necessary to sustain life. Fire isn’t a natural disaster; it’s nature changing and evolving, seeking equilibrium. To exclude fire from a forest that has evolved with it for eons is akin to removing the bugs, grubs, and fungi that we find unpalatable, but are necessary to recycle dead material. Yet from overgrazing to putting fires out, keeping fire out of the forest is precisely what we’ve done for over 100 years. By trying to exclude death, we have inadvertently severed the cycle of life.
Now wildfire is coming back with a vengeance, like a river breaching a dam. Some of these fires are indeed life-annihilating disasters, but they aren’t really natural disasters. They’re the product of a long legacy of human interventions. Broken Equilibrium invites the viewer to enter the current, unstable cycle and contemplate our relationship with wildfire. Are we really stewards of the land, outside invaders, or part of nature itself, evolved alongside fire as surely as the trees?
Steven Yazzie – Forest of Words
Forest of Words is work that brings local people together to meet and talk in a semi-structured environment in hopes of gaining meaningful insights and perspectives about wildfires in the West. The project was initiated by inviting a cross-section of community members from the Flagstaff area to meet for a focus group discussion here in the gallery. Conducting research in this way was part of a process of outreach and social engagement, exploring the space of universal value systems, in hopes of collecting data, and sharing data in a meaningful way. The social scientific method and techniques embedded in the focus group activity can be considered the conceptual framework and guide for community participation, as well as a subtext to the installation. Forest of Words is a community dialogue and a process of engagement seeking a greater understanding of the Flagstaff community, and in the process is re-contextualizing and rationalizing aesthetics of place-identity.
My installation represents a structure of social connectivity and is designed as a practical and minimal sculpture open for public discourse and engagement. It contains the chairs and the blackboard that were used in the focus group meeting. The display and arrangement share a formal gesture of process and a symbolic representation of a defined space for communal exchange. The installation contains the audio recording of each participant in 6 MP3 players that are designated to six chairs once occupied by those participants.
Now as a temporary installation, Forest of Words invites you the reader, viewer, and participant to enter into the space and take a seat and listen to the conversations that once took place here.
Kathleen Brennan – the matter of life and death
As a lifelong photographer and multi-disciplinary artist, I have been repeatedly drawn to the harsh beauty of the elemental transformations that occur in our everyday lives. I’ve photographed birth, death, illness, changing skies and, most recently, the effects of drought on the landscapes and peoples of northeastern New Mexico.
Like many westerners, I have witnessed the increasing threat of forest fires, lived for weeks in the smoke of distant burns, and wandered among their charred remains. But I never fully appreciated the necessity and life-giving potential of fire until the Fires of Change workshop.
After the workshops, I found myself wanting to get up close and personal with this mysterious being we call fire. I visited prescribed burns in Arizona and New Mexico, past fire sites with 2-20 years of re-growth and thinning projects.
The 8 minute piece the matter of life and death speaks to the transformations we must go through in order to sustain our environment and ultimately our lives.
Jennifer Gunlock – Urban Interface
In my mixed media collages, I incorporate photographic imagery I take on my travels, primarily of buildings and trees. A subject that I repeatedly latch onto when I’m incorporating them into a piece is the tense and awkward relationship between the wild landscape and imposing infrastructure we build to shield ourselves from the wild. There is no real dividing line between the two. They co-exist, just not very harmoniously.
As I was wandering through past burns on Grand Canyon’s North Rim during the fire science boot camp, my attention immediately fell on the glossy, blistering bark that covered these fully barbecued ponderosa pine remains. With that image in mind, and remarking on the leafless aspens’ eerie resemblance to cell phone towers, I set out to create a large scale work on paper that re-imagines the ponderosa pine forest, with artifacts of civilization embedded in it. I selected photographs I took during boot camp, of charred ponderosas, a fire truck’s hoses and headlights, and the urban infrastructure referencing my home city of Los Angeles, such as a skyscraper reflected in the windows of another, and a fire escape. I photocopied these images and then cut, tore, and sliced them into unrecognizable pieces, fusing them into a forest composition.
A question repeatedly explored during the boot camp was that of human intervention into the forest. The recent increase in fire super storms is largely due to human causes, such as decades of total fire suppression, importation of non-native plant species, and accelerated global warming. So, now fire managers are tasked with patching up the damage civilization has caused. Humans created the problem, and now humans are trying to fix it, leaving the fire managers and scientists grappling with the philosophical and political questions of: how much should they impose on forest ecosystems in order to establish a healthy balance, and when should they leave it well enough alone? And, what is their (our) right or responsibility to the landscape?
Saskia Jorda – 100% Contained
During the summer of 2012, a small dwelling that my husband was building by hand burnt down in the Gladiator fire in Crown King, AZ. Witnessing the aftermath of the fire and walking through the charred landscape was an eye-opening experience, one that remains etched vividly in my memory. I was particularly moved by the silence and stoic presence of the burnt trees. Since then I have been looking for ways to process this experience through my art, to conquer my fear of fire, and to search for opportunities to learn about the impact I personally have on my surrounding environment.
The Fires of Change exhibition presented the perfect opportunity for me to revisit my connection to fire, and to continue the dialog through a new project entitled 100% Contained. My objective was to make a poetic gesture using black yarn the length of the perimeter of the Gladiator fire when fully contained: 200,059 feet (37.89 miles). Over the past several months, a community of over 50 participants from all over the country contributed to the project, crocheting and knitting skeins of black yarn into an organic line to reach my goal.
The yarn’s appearance on the platform fills the confines of the footprint of the fire within a 1:5000 scaled map, loosely referencing the topography of the mountainous landscape through which the fire burned. In some places, the yarn’s terrain is highly manipulated and controlled; in others it flows organically, representing the struggle between man and nature. More specifically, this is the struggle between managing the often-erratic growth of the fire versus allowing it to take its natural course. Amidst this dichotomy is pinned a red dot of yarn: the location of our small dwelling lost to the fire.
With this installation I explore several themes: the change wrought upon the landscape by fire, the slow re-growth of Southwestern forests, and the many hands involved in fighting a fire of large magnitude. Through social practice and connecting communities, the piece intends to bring forth the beauty of a community effort linked by a common goal: raising awareness about the impact of fire on the land we inhabit – not only the destructive power of fire, but also its regenerating force.
Helen Padilla – Bang Mirror and Red Flag
Years ago, I painted a mirror. It was an act done with dark grey paint on a canvas larger than myself, a moment caught permanently in a work I called Full Length Mirror. Like much of my work, I painted over it. Here now is a second mirror. Rather than reflecting, it’s projecting its harsh yet fragile message. Opening and unfolding a fire shelter, so neatly packaged for carrying in a fireman’s pack, they appear thin and flimsy. I feel a willingness to perceive that it could protect its occupant. I consider another circumstance for opening this package – the decision that a fireman’s life depends on it determining their fate. Through repetition of the familiar childhood fortuneteller, I contemplate my perceptions of that time and place. Those moments are not frozen in time, but steadily marching onward leaving wonderful and horrible moments behind forever.
“Sculpture is more than an object; it’s an activity.” ~ Charles Ray, artist
Recently, my husband and I, along with a local builder and architect, completed my first sculpture, our home. It was a powerful lesson about what can be accomplished through collaboration. I learned to trust others and realized ideas greater than what my own hands were capable of producing. It was relieving to see I didn’t have to do everything on my own.
Red Flag explores my quiet desire to collaborate with the community concern for the place I live. Through the act of collecting red fabric from a local Flagstaff business, cutting it up and mixing it all together, I transform cloth into a symbol of our unity and our unprecedented effects upon the land we live. I can’t change the effects, but I can change my expectations of the future to be in alignment with what’s necessary for the survival of the forest. With an ever increasing intensity, the wildfire calls for new perceptions of life in the Southwest.
Julie Comnick – Ashes to Ashes
Ashes to Ashes is a series of drawings depicting recent Arizona wildfires, rendered with charcoal samples I personally collected from each fire site. Each drawing is displayed with its corresponding charcoal sample. The collection represents fourteen significant wildfires from 1990 to the present, with archived photographs used as references.
While regular wildfire cycles are essential for the health of the ecosystem, they are frequently accompanied by negative public perception of wilderness devastation and human disaster. The increased size and severity of recent fires – due to suppression strategies that began over a century ago, and the continual drought and warming trends resulting from climate change – have taken toll on the environment and humans alike.
The use of charcoal, as an art medium, dates back to the earliest Paleolithic cave paintings. That it still prevails today (in a refined and compressed form) attests to charcoal’s variety of applications and archival nature. Working with the unrefined, burnt remnants of Ponderosa Pine or Manzanita found at each wildfire site presented creative challenges such as achieving tonal range and detail on a small scale, and meeting contemporary expectations with an archaic medium.
The objective of these drawings is to reverse the public perception trajectory as viewers gain a renewed appreciation for the necessity of wildfire toward sustaining the longevity of our shared landscape.
Bonnie Peterson – On the Nature of Fire
This work explores the language of wildland fire and its environmental connections. I wanted to understand and unravel some of the complex interactions among the factors and ecological consequences of recent Western wildfires. While researching definitions and variable manipulations, I started drawing arrows between fire science variables and constructed a flow chart or relationship map. This diagram was the basis for the embroidery on silk, “On the Nature of Fire.”
Two 7.5 minute USGS topographic maps of the Grand Canyon are the foundation for a mixture of source materials such as scientific graphs, photos, stitching and text, which examine fire science and the human experience. I am interested in the wildland firefighter’s job description, fire ecology data, climate research, and the 1800’s journals of John Wesley Powell and Clarence Dutton.
Wilderness experiences inform my work. Lengthy backpacking trips are significant to integrating the impacts of wilderness, contemporary society and historical context into my artistic process. Traditional embroidery, primitive samplers and graphic design are points of departure. These compositions provide a novel opportunity to consider current events and ethical questions.
Craig Goodworth – Fire Renderings (Studies 1 & 2)
Working directly with logs and fire, I’ve sought to collaborate with fire in altering raw material – rendering form, volume, and texture. These studies allow me to know in and through my body something of fire’s destructive capacity, but also its creative potential.
The trough or sarcophagus form echoes and extends a series of contemporaneous artworks (9 Korytos) I made this past spring while on a Fulbright in Slovakia’s Carpathian Mountains. Through this work, I investigated forests ravaged by unprecedented wind.
The two halved Ponderosa logs and slab were collected from a burn site in Northeastern Arizona. The slab is filled with cinders collected from Red Mountain and pot ash collected from heating my present home in Oregon. Currently due to an unrelenting drought, the Northwest is being ravaged by fire. Hundreds of homes are being destroyed by wildfires.
Regarding process, both 9 Korytos and Fire Renderings begin with empirical data then shift the question to art’s role in helping us feel physically connected to land. As thinking needs to be grounded in some kind of feeling, these artworks ask what role aesthetics has in feeling the crises that arise in the natural world.
Katharina Roth – Nineteen
When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
I chose porcelain to create these helmets as a tribute to the 19 Granite Mountain hot shots who gave their lives in the deadliest wild fire in Arizona. They died doing what they loved most. According to Superintendent Eric Marsh, who perished with them, fighting fires was the most fulfilling thing that any of them had ever done.
Porcelain symbolizes the fragility and preciousness of life and how it can be shattered in an instant. The helmets were fired in a wood kiln where the unglazed porcelain absorbed the marks and paths of the flames, and the wood ash was transformed into glazes. Some of the helmets were warped and damaged in the kiln because fire is such a powerful force. It is transformational, containing both, life and death, and therefore is essential for life.
Katharina Roth & Craig Goodworth – Tree Core Study
During the fire science workshop on the North Rim, we decided to collaborate on a secondary project in a way that might hold together concept and craft. We were both struck by the fragility and memory of a tree core. It is the essence of a tree, a documentation of its history, from its beginning one to two hundred years ago, enabling scientists to see the evidence of a particular tree, sharing with us its story of dry and wet years, possibly pests and illnesses, and when it was touched by fire.
In making a tree core out of clay, we are documenting the various rings of growth, giving it an archival quality, like a book in a library of time, setting it in stone. Wood firing implies we are casting it in fire, exposing it to the elements. Instead of showing a burnt tree trunk we are taking its essence and burning it.
David Chorlton – A Field Guide to Fire
The Navajo believes that if he comes
within the influence of the flames
he will absorb some of the essence
of lightning, which will therefore be
attracted to him and sooner or later
will kill him.
Coconino Sun, Aug. 11, 1900
sizzles; one strike bites
into bark; one strike sparks
a blaze; one strike holds back
and follows a man all his life,
waiting to have him know
the fate of trees.
A Field Guide to Fire: Control
. . . the choice is not between two landscapes,
one with and one without a human influence;
it is between two ways of living, two ways of
belonging to an ecosystem.
William Cronon, 1983
The slow smoke rising
signals where a fire crawls
along the forest bed,
crackling as it burns
the recent history away
of how the seasons brought
more heat than rain
and left the layered kindling
for the next storm
to ignite. It follows every rise
or ditch, flowing low
and holding to its purpose
though it strains sometimes
to stay within its means
the way a wolf might do
when scenting prey
in two directions.
This forest has roots
ten thousand years deep
and branches of lightning.
Rain fell as needles here,
drying on the ground
where summers grew longer
found a home to return to.
It hasn’t been long since
the pines were here,
and home to Goshawks; it hasn’t taken
as long for the land to change
as it takes a child to grow
to the age of curiosity, when
he asks what kind of tree that is,
and the parent
It’s aspen; it grows
from a fire.
We are also pleased to announce that a printed catalog for Fires of Change is now available for purchase! Click here to preview the catalog.
The project is a collaboration between the Southwest Fire Science Consortium, Landscape Conservation Initiative, and Flagstaff Arts Council, with a supporting grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.