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. The Exhibit is up at the Coconino Center for the arts from now until October 31, 2015 and we’ve been enjoying monthly blog updates from the 11 talented artists who created work for the project. For more information, take a look at the Flagstaff Arts Council exhibit page.
When curator Shawn Skabelund first invited me to join Fires of Change in May 2014, my response was a solid “maybe.” The project was worthy and intriguing, for sure. But to go whole-hog into it, I would have to cancel most of my summer art fairs in 2015. That is to say, I’d have to forego a large chunk of my income for the year. There just is no such thing as half-hog on an art project. Nobody wants to see half of a hog. Giving it all you’ve got is what gives art its magic.
Then, a few days after the invite, everything changed: the Slide Fire broke out, and the disaster narrative was soon ablaze in the national media. My wife and I received notice to remove valuables from our home and prepare for possible evacuation. All of my film and negatives—my livelihood and my life’s work—were in the house. And we were 2,000 miles away at an art fair on the East Coast. My emotions raged from urgency to helplessness to acceptance. The fire changed course, but the lesson was clear. It was time to start anew, to put my skills to use towards something bigger than myself. Fires of Change seemed the perfect opportunity to do so.
I’ve spent the last year learning about forest ecology, fire science, and fire management— fascinating fields of active research. But mostly I’ve been rethinking my personal relationship with fire. I’ve also been rethinking my art practice. I joined the project as a photographer, but you won’t find a single photograph in the show. Early on, it became clear that people expected me to visit fire sites and photograph the re-growth: wildflowers, oak shoots, and aspen seedlings. All fine and good, but not substantially different than what I’ve done before. 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. 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.
Wildfires lead to dramatic coverage in the media. People naturally want to know who was responsible, and when the fires will be put out. They want to know what’s causing these fires to burn so destructively. The answers are complex and often uncertain. But I believe the root cause goes way back. Back before climate change stressed the forest, back before developers plunked Mc-mansions down in fire corridors, back before decades of fire suppression, back before clear-cutting the old growth, back before overgrazing the grasslands, back even before 1492. The root cause is a fundamental set of cultural perceptions—perceptions that must be challenged before we can enact successful policies, no matter how clear the scientific data.
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 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 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 breeching 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—a legacy that, ironically, now requires further intervention to undo.
In Fires of Change, I investigate these concepts through a series of fractured circular forms—metaphors for the cycle of life and death being broken into a duality—using the primal materials of wood and fire itself. I juxtapose soft organic lines and natural edges with geometrical forms that convey our desire to control capricious natural processes—often with unintended consequences.
Severance is inspired by the initial disruption of the fire cycle by white settlement: the land parceled out along political boundaries, the timber removed, the grasses overgrazed. After many failed experiments, I developed a technique of trapping the heat and smoke from an open flame in beeswax, effectively painting with fire.
Box and Burn alludes to the containment and suppression of wildfire in the 20th century. The cycle of life remains broken and unable to heal. The focal point is empty space—the absence of fire, and the consequent loss of information.
Broken Equilibrium portrays the current, unstable cycle of overgrowth and increasingly larger fires. I constructed it with hundreds of trees from the Observatory Mesa thinning project and burned trees salvaged from the Slide and Schultz fires. I invite viewers to enter the sculpture 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?
Inside Broken Equilibrium the viewer finds a hint of hope in Reconstruction, sculpted from a downed tree as old as Flagstaff—a tree that witnessed the changes to the forest. The sculpture alludes to the work by scientists to puzzle together the historical forest and reintroduce fire into the landscape. The solution is far from easy, though. We can’t just go back to pre-settlement times.
All of the forms deliberately compel the viewer’s eye to complete the circle. I try to create a charged atmosphere where viewers can spark their own discoveries, sometimes different than my own. My role as an artist is to provoke questions, not to provide answers. Hammering out policy isn’t the domain of artists, or even scientists; it’s work we must all forge together, as citizens of this planet.
I would like to thank the following for helping me take this project from sketch to reality:
Tasha Miller Griffith
Tom Scheel / Radiance Heating, Plumbing, and Solar
Flagstaff Fire Department Wildland Fire Division
Silas Page / AP Sawmill