helmets and quiet giants

Fires of Change is a collaborative project with the Southwest Fire Science Consortium, the Flagstaff Arts Council, and the Landscape Conservation Initiative (LCI) funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and Joint Fires Sciences Program. It aims to translate the complex social and ecological (new term: ecopyrosocioeconomological) issues surrounding wildfire into art. Our hope is that art will educate and invigorate people about the beauty and ecological necessity of wild fire. In advance of our September 5, 2015 exhibit opening and September 19, 2015 reception at Coconino Center for the Arts, we will be having monthly blog updates from the 11 talented artists who are creating work for the project. For more information, take a look at the Flagstaff Arts Council exhibit page.

Today’s update comes to us from ceramicist Katharina Roth. You can also see the post on her personal blog here.

After our week long immersion into the science of forest fires, I had many ideas for this show. As time went by, and as I eliminated one idea after the other – because they either did not seem strong enough, or because they were simply too monumental – one topic still hit home: the 19 hot shots that died during the Yarnell Fire. Although this is a show about positive change and new ways of dealing with huge fuel loads and extreme fires, we cannot ignore the fact, that the way we used to do things has caused many men and women to lose their lives. And I wanted to talk about it.

out of the mold

out of the mold

Early on I decided to work in my medium, Ceramics. Clay would allow me to fire the helmets in a wood kiln, which, conceptually, would be strong. I started by finding a hotshot helmet that I could use to make a mold of. Mark Shiery, a hot shot who had worked many fires, was kind enough to lend me his used and battered helmet. It was important to me that the helmet had been in fires and as such carried the memory of them.

The three stages from right to left- greenware, bisqued, and wood fired.

The three stages from right to left- greenware, bisqued, and wood fired.

Making a mold, mixing the porcelain casting slip from scratch, and pouring each helmet was an emotional process. Although I know from when I was a little girl how a tragic death of a parent can tear a family apart, I don’t claim that I know the depth of pain and sorrow this tragedy caused. And yet, I wanted to use this event as a starting point for my piece. I considered using less than 19 helmets, making more of a general statement, but I kept coming back to the 19. Because Fires of Change is about new solutions and changes that will have positive long term effects, I needed to find a way to show some hope despite the sadness. How was I going to do that, how was I going to find a way to create something that would instill peace in peoples’ hearts?

One solution came with the idea of planting plants in the helmets as a symbol for new life. Over time the idea evolved from Ponderosa seedlings to Aspens to Blue Stem and Fescue grasses. Again Ponderosas and Aspens were more of a general statement, but as beautiful as the Aspens are, they do not like to be indoors for two months. The grasses are soft and soothing and are fitting for what I want to say, they also are the first plants to grow in the Yarnell area after a fire.

Wood firing ceramics is a very intense and transformative process. Even after one firing shift you are tired, dirty, your face, hands and clothes are black, and the heat is at times unbearable. You can only face the intense flames with a bandana or a face shield. Of course it is not like being in a forest fire, because the fire is controlled and cannot get out of hand.

A whole community of participants, 18 of us, all carried wood, kindled the fires of the two kilns, and kept the heat rising to 2300 Fahrenheit. The firing took 3 nights and 3 days. In the end our pieces were vitrified and all showed the fire marks of the flames: browns, oranges, yellow, even greens and blues. Some soft and barely touched, some scorched and warped like some of my helmets. I will display them in a way that underlines the healing aspect. Still, I am not 100 % sure what that will look like. I have many ideas, and currently I am experimenting until I find it. In the end it might be very simple, narrowed down to the essence.

This has been a long and rewarding process. I started making the mold during Winter break, and I have been working on this project on and off ever since. So many people helped and participated with open ears and hearts: Shawn Skabelund who has gently guided me, my teachers, co-students, my husband, all the people who helped with wood firing, Mark Shiery, and Phil, head of the NAU greenhouse. I feel this was and is a community effort, and I am grateful for having been invited to be part of this extraordinary experience.

Craig and I have been working together on a second project that involves tree cores, made out of clay – with an artistic license – and wood fired as well. We are still playing at how we want to display them. The cores represent the memories of trees, like a history book in a library that we can open and read. Are we learning from our past? Or will we just continue in our old ways without consulting these quiet giants?

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