How Artists in the Southwest Bring Attention to Wildfires


Bryan David Griffith, “Rebirth” (2021), dried aspen leaves coated in beeswax, tree remains from a fire site, variable dimensions (photo by the artist; all images with courtesy of the artists)

Various hues of aspen leaves coated in encaustic beeswax hang in long strands above a broken circle of ash from a fire site in “Rebirth” (2017), an elegant installation created by Bryan David Griffith as part of her creative practice elevating ecological themes. He is one of many Arizona-based artists exploring wildfires, motivated in part by their own experiences with fire.

Griffith was on the East Coast when he learned he had to evacuate his Flagstaff home during the 2014 Slide Fire, which ultimately burned more than 21,000 acres in a heavily forested part of northern Arizona. “All my life’s work was at home,” he told Hyperallergic, reflecting on the confluence of events that shifted his focus to wildfire-related work.

A few days earlier, he had been invited to participate in lights of change, a group exhibit in Flagstaff dealing with “the increasing severity, size and number of wildfires in the West and their impact on the landscape”. The exhibition, which opened at Coconino Art Center at the end of 2015, is partly inspired by In a time of change: the art of fire, a 2012 exhibition in Fairbanks, Alaska, which brought together artists, fire professionals and scientists. Eleven artists participated in a training camp on the sciences of fire before creating new works for lights of changewhich was also shown in TucsonArizona before another iteration makes its way to AlbuquerqueNew Mexico.

Artist Bryan David Griffith creates a sculpture with fire.

The show was organized by Shawn Skabelunda Flagstaff-based artist and curator whose installation work often explores issues of colonization and the doctrine of manifest destiny that underlies settler culture – including how federal land management policies aimed at extinguishing fires have historically been contrary to Aboriginal practices.

“The primary goal of the Fire Scientists and Ecologists exhibit was to educate the public about the value of fire, but my primary focus was aesthetics and the presentation of forms that the public did not have the used to seeing,” recalls Skabelund. “I really wanted artists to step out of their comfort zone and think beyond the mediums they were used to working with.”

Griffith did just that, working in the home studio that fire never reached in 2014. Instead of centering photography at the heart of his existing art practice, Griffith created installation pieces using fire related materials such as trees, burnt embers and leaves. collected from the forest floor to spark conversations about ecological destruction, habitat loss and climate change. “I wanted to bring people into the visceral, sensory experience of a still smoldering fire, using simple materials like burnt wood and smoke to help people connect with the forests they may not see. ever be in person,” Griffith said.

Julie Comnick, “Exhibition” (2017), oil on canvas, 80 x 95 inches

The increase in the frequency of forest fires has prompted the United States Forest Service to change its terminology from “wildfire seasons” to “wildfire years”, and Arizona had already seen several major fires by the middle of 2022. In April, the Tunnel Fire burned thousands of acres north of Flagstaff, including Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. . In June, a fire in Tucson and two fires near Flagstaff “ripped through several buildings at a national observatory, forced the evacuation of a historic landmark, and threatened other archaeological artifacts,” according to a report by The Washington Post.

Installation view of Julie Comnick’s Arrangement for a silent orchestra exhibition at the Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum in Arizona in 2015

Julie Comnick has been working with fire since 2012, when she launched her Arrangement for a silent orchestra project examining the scale and pace of cultural destruction. She had been playing the violin for many years and decided to use the instrument as a symbol of classical cultural traditions for a series of paintings and videos that showed a large pile of fire-consumed violins in the landscape.

Prior to moving to Flagstaff, Comnick lived in Prescott, Arizona, where the Duce Fire approached within a mile of his home in June 2013. That same year, lightning triggered the Yarnell Hill fire near Prescott, which became one of the state’s deadliest wildfires on June 30, when 19 of 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives battling the blaze. “What we’re up against in terms of ecological systems feels like things are spiraling out of control,” Comnick said. “We are seeing the displacement of people, flooding from fire scars across the landscape and other accelerating impacts of climate change.” For lights of changeComnick presented a dozen works of her Ashes to ashes series dealing with ecological themes. The series combines her drawings based on archival photographs of Arizona wildfire sites with pieces of charcoal she sourced from those same locations.

Installation view of “Ashes to Ashes” by Julie Comnick (2015), forest fire charcoal on paper with charcoal swatches

The exhibition also included 100% content by Saskia Jorda, a Phoenix, Arizona-based artist, whose field and migration-centric work continues to incorporate subtle references to fire. Designed by Jordá as “a soft sculptural and symbolic map” depicting the perimeter of the 2012 Gladiator Fire in Crown King, Arizona, the piece features 37.89 miles of black yarn crocheted by the artist and dozens of volunteers. It was the same fire that destroyed a creative space designed by Jordá’s husband, architect Victor Sidy, who installed a significant portion of the structure the night before it ignited.

In 2013, Jordá and Sidy set up a series of bright yellow observation stations along the Gladiator Fire’s path and created a map to help provide context for viewers. Entitled “Hotshots”, the work was installed for 2013 High Desert Test Sites and featured in the recent Disruptions on the ground exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.

Detail of Saskia Jordá and Victor Sidy, “Hotshots” (2013) (photo by Victor Sidy)
Saskia Jordá and Victor Sidy, “Hotshots” (2013)

For Arizona-based artists using fire to plumb the depths of cultural and ecological destruction, monumental works recently exhibited at the Phoenix Art Museum, including by Cornelia Parker “Mass (Colder Darker Matter)” (1997) and by Teresita Fernández “Fire (USA), 2” (2017-2019) provides valuable context. Parker used charred remains of a church fire to create a suspended form from the ceiling, and Fernández used solid charcoal elements to render a map of the United States.

While the massive fires grabbed headlines, recent exhibits such as Forest ⇌ Fire in California, Facing the fire in Utah, and Rethink fire in Oregon have created avenues for divergent ideas and deeper dialogue.

In Portland, the World Forestry Center Discovery Museum shows Griffith’s work up to the end of the year. Beth Ames Swartz will present three works based on fire in the Transform the fire exhibition that opens September 17 at the Palo Alto Arts Center in Northern California. The Phoenix-based artist has used fire as both material and subject for decades in her art practice grounded in the concepts of birth, death and rebirth.

Bryan David Griffith, ‘The Impermanence of Forests’ (2017), burnt pigment print on silk from film, charcoal remnants of a depicted fire, 60 x 72 x 6 inches

for her Fire series, Swartz layered paper, acrylic paint, and earth elements such as earth or sand, using a “ritual of process” that mirrors his conceptual framework. She burns her materials, mutilates them with screwdrivers or other objects, and reassembles the results to form mixed media abstractions that speak to her view of fire as “a source of transforming energy.”

During this time, the fire water The exhibit opens Sept. 24 at the gallery at the Tempe Center for the Arts, just east of Phoenix, and will highlight the work of several artists, including Anthony Mead, who uses materials such as charcoal wood, wood and soot to create paintings, prints and sculptures that investigate relationships between man and fire.

“Artists can provide visual stories as entry points into conversations about forest health and the destructive and healing aspects of fire,” Jordá explained. “We have the illusion that we can control the landscape, but the landscape does what it has to do.”

Installation view of “Broken Equilibrium” by Bryan David Griffith (photo by Jonathan Ley)

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