Fires of Change

December 21, 2015
Eric Magrane

An art-science exhibit currently up at the University of Arizona Museum of Art (UAMA) includes work by 11 artists, each of whom addresses fire science and fire ecology in their contribution.

Fires of Change grew out of a fire science “boot camp” that took place in 2014. The collaborative project brought the 11 artists together for a week with the Southwest Fire Science Consortium and the Landscape Conservation Initiative to learn about the science and impact of fire on the northern Arizona landscape. The work resulting from that boot camp, which received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, among other support, was curated by Shawn Skabelund and shown at Flagstaff’s Coconino Center for the Arts earlier this fall. We’re lucky that it now has landed in Tucson at UAMA through April 3, 2016.

Fire, of course, has much representational and metaphorical weight. It contains heat, desire, destruction, rebirth, and transformation. Think of phrases such as “to play with fire” or “putting your feet to the fire.” Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of kingfishers catching fire; Robert Frost famously began a poem, “Some say the world will end in fire…”

And while the pieces in this exhibit intersect with the metaphorical aspects of fire, they do much more than work in the metaphorical, or representational, modes. They work with the elements of fire, the remains of fire, the science of fire, and the materials of fire.

Take Julie Comnick’s Ashes to Ashes series as an example. Her charcoal drawings depict 14 recent Arizona wildfires, from the 1990 Dude fire at the Mogollen Rim to the 2014 Slide fire in Oak Creek Canyon north of Sedona. (Tucsonans visiting the exhibit will especially note the drawing of the 2003 Aspen fire on Mount Lemmon.) Each of the drawings includes an inventory of the fire’s characteristics, including incident type, cause, date, location, size, vegetation, management, structures lost, and deaths.

What I find most striking about Comnick’s series, though, is the materials she used to draw the fires: each of the drawings is made from charcoal that she gathered at the site of the fire. This gets at how art can be a kind of alchemy—transforming the remnants of fire into a media to represent the fire and tell its story.

The stories of fire that the art in this exhibit reference draw heavily on fire science and fire ecology. Throughout the exhibit, quotes by fire scientists, researchers, and policy experts—including Melissa Savage, Thomas Swetnam, Bruce Babbit, Harold H. Biswell, and Stephen J. Pyne, among others—are displayed as well. The artists appear to have taken in the nuances of fire ecology from their boot camp training. Key here is a growing awareness of the importance of fire’s role in forest ecology and landscape health. After many years in the 20th century of a policy of fire suppression—coupled with climate change and associated drought in the West—fires have grown larger in size, and land managers and scientists are working on how to best place fire back on the landscape as a management technique.

Poet David Chorlton, whose poems grace the walls of the exhibit and are included in his book, A Field Guide to Fire, uses an epigraph from environmental historian William Cronon in his poem “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.” Chorlton’s poem then begins:

            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…

Through Chorlton’s poem, fire also plays alchemical, burning “the recent history away.” Reading this in relation to the epigraph from Cronon, I think about how fire—like so much in the world—is about time and about relationship. Cronon’s “two ways of living,” for example, mediated through Chorlton’s poem, gets to primary questions of human-environment relationship. While the title of this poem might reference controlled or prescribed burns as a management policy, it also points to the possibility of different orientations to ecosystems based on collaboration. Here it should also be noted that histories and practices of using fire on the landscape go back much further than contemporary western fire science, to traditional ecological knowledges and practices that applied fire on the landscape.

Many of the artists in Fires of Change take a collaborative approach to their materials. Bryan David Griffith is primarily a photographer, but for this exhibit he asked what it would be like to bring the aesthetics of fire into the gallery. His pieces Reconstruction and Broken Equilibrium are made from the materials of fire—including the charred remains of burned trees, which are turned into aesthetic artifacts in the space of the gallery.

Helen Padilla works with other materials related to fire, including fire shelters that had been carried by firefighters. The shelters, made of aluminum foil, silica, and fiberglass, are safety devices carried by firefighters for last resort. To picture them, if you’re a hiker, think about a version of an emergency blanket that is bigger and helps protect you from fire. Padilla repurposed fire shelters into a piece called Bang Mirror, a reflective wall piece that repeats the form of childhood folded paper fortuneteller, over and over and over. Another piece, Red Flag, is made from red fabric Padilla collected from Flagstaff businesses and is displayed strikingly on the floor.

“With an ever increasing intensity,” Padilla writes in her artist statement, “the wildfire calls for new perceptions of life in the Southwest.”

Every day humans make multiple decisions about their relationships to the materials and elements of life—from our relationship with fire, to our relationship with oil and gas, to our relationship with water, to our relationships with each other. If artists can help us toward new perceptions, as Padilla suggests, we might be able to reimagine and even turn around some of those relationships—like our relationship with fire—that have gotten out of whack. For that, it’s more and more apparent that we need both art and science.

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The Fires of Change exhibit is at UAMA through April 3. Multiple events will highlight the exhibit: Participating artists Julie Comnick and Stephen Yazzie along with UA professors and fire and climate specialists Don Falk and Kevin Anchukaitis will present on their work on February 19. Provost Andrew Comrie will moderate a science panel in conjunction with the exhibition on March 31. Participants include Margaret Evans, Ben McMahan, and Greg Barron-Gafford.

Read more on the exhibit at UANews.

Photos courtesy of UAMA, Tom Alexander, and Bryan David Griffith.