The Fires of Change exhibition at the Coconino Center for the Arts, open from September 4 – October 31, 2015, featured 11 artists from the southwestern United States. At the center of the exhibition, on its title wall, and at its heart, the art of Flagstaff’s Bryan David Griffith stood out as exemplary and exceptional.
Griffith was invited to join the project as an accomplished photographer with work in major museum collections (his solo exhibition and community-based installation at the Flagstaff Photography Center earned a Viola Award nomination in 2013), but surprised everyone by tackling new media, on a massive scale, for the Fires of Change project. “The power of art lies in the unexpected, in its ability to reveal a fresh perspective. A powerful exhibition isn’t about illustrating what we already know, but rather challenging ourselves to think more deeply. At least that’s my goal with Fires of Change,” Griffith explains on the LCI Ideas blog. “In order to achieve that, I had to challenge my own complacency. It was time to dive head first into the black unknown, time to leave the familiar camera behind and embrace something more primal.”
Griffith completed four works of art that were included in the Fires of Change exhibition:
Broken Equilibrium is a large-scale sculptural installation featuring cut and sculpted salvaged trees, as well as burned and charred trees, from nearby forest thinning projects. The 13’ x 13’ sculpture is arranged in a circle, with fresh cut logs in neat ordered arrangements creating one-half of a circle with the other half populated by stark black charred trees. The artist’s statement speaks to the life cycle of the forest, human interaction and interference with that cycle, and the disruption of natural forces.
Box & Burn is a wood sculpture crafted from a burned Ponderosa pine. The circular form, broken by a horizontal line and carved out by a central empty box, might stand as the one strong work of art that could be the primary statement for the entire Fires of Change project. It speaks to the disruption of the natural life cycle of the forest, which began when we interfered with the forest by attempting to remove wildfire from it through decades of fire suppression.
One of the more unique works of art in an exhibition that features unique art, Severance is a wall hanging sculpture. Griffith lists the materials for this piece as “smoke from open flame accumulated in encaustic beeswax, with wood.” This process of this work of art is exactly that: Griffith used smoke from open flame to create the black “smoky” element of the piece. It was a dance between artist and material. The resulting form and piece continues the themes of the other works herein.
Finally, Reconstruction, which is situated at the center of Broken Equilibrium (in both installations at the Coconino Center for the Arts and the UofA Museum of Art) is a wood sculpture crafted from a Ponderosa pine. It is meant to serve as a possible marker of hope; perhaps, with the right focus and management policy, we can help to re-introduce healthy fire back into the forest to bring forest ecology back into balance. Like the other sculptural pieces in the exhibition, Griffith sculpted it in part by literally lighting it on fire.
While the four pieces appear deceptively simple, their construction required hundreds of hours of labor and presented unique technical challenges. Griffith spent a year gathering materials and developing new techniques. As a backup in case the technical challenges couldn’t be surmounted in time for the Fires of Change exhibition, he created an additional 20 small-to-medium scale works using the fire, smoke, and wax painting technique he developed for Severance. These additional works, while not included in the Fires of Change exhibition, were awarded Second Place in Painting at the 2015 Saint Louis Art Fair, out of 148 bodies of work by professional artists selected from 1188 applicants nationally.
The Fires of Change exhibition traveled to the University of Arizona Museum of Art, opening on November 19, 2015. It will remain open to the public through April 3, 2016. Griffith’s four pieces are also at the center of that exhibition’s focus.