In a meadow clearing at the base of the San Francisco Peaks off Forest Road 415 A in Kendrick Park, an entire symphony orchestra waits in the snow, mimicking the mountainous backdrop.
Julie Comnick and documentarian Mark Neumann, who also teaches the subject at Northern Arizona University, ventured out every day for two weeks to study the space.
“Part of it, you’re busy you’re actively taking photos you’re checking the — is that still going?”
Comnick pauses even in mid-sentence to check if the timer is still counting the seconds till the video camera’s button must be pushed again. It is.
“Sitting here in this landscape, every day you’re learning more about the details. There’s something about sitting in this space and seeing how the grass comes up. This space becomes sacred in a way.”
As the blanket of white that embraced northern Arizona last week fades into memory, Comnick, an artist and Prescott College studio arts faculty, is just getting started.
Fresh off her participation in the recent “Fires of Change” exhibition at the Coconino Center for the Arts, these frigid excursions are only the next stage of her evolving commentary, one she initiated in 2009.
“Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra” began with “451° F” — named for wood’s combustion temperature. Comnick explored the dissolution of culture in tune with rising technology through her personal iconography.
As the only child of a piano teacher and vocal musician, Comnick was pressured to pick up an instrument, and settled on the small — yet powerful — violin, playing in symphony orchestra settings from age 8 through 18. This abandonment has haunted the artist, often appearing in recurring dreams and as imagery in her previous paintings.
Using the violin metaphor, she collected 100 of the instruments from shops nationwide over a nine-month period. She piled their wooden bodies in a form representative of Granite Mountain behind the hill near her Prescott home — then struck a match.
She illustrated the pile, the burn and the remains on massive oil-painted canvases that comprise the series, and in video. But even while working on the “burning violins,” as they’ve come to be called, Comnick says she couldn’t help pondering fire’s converse: cold, tranquil, opaque and silent.
“In some ways, it seems very contradictory I did the burning one first, but I did not know I would need them,” she said.
In a similar conceptual vein that includes a full orchestra of instruments and a sort of departure in technique and process, Comnick envisioned the multimedia project, “Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra: 28° F,” again a play on her material — this time the temperature at which snow accumulates.
Using composites of the photos and time-lapse video she and Neumann shot at the pile site — the build, all three incoming storms, white-out and melt — Comnick will create in her studio for years.
She explains “Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra: 28°” is a multi-layered commentary, largely dissecting cultural phenomena and iconography. The long-term developments will come to unfold include a holistic statement on culture, arts funding in education and heritage.
“It’s sort of like the licking-the-frozen-flagpole phenomenon, and what metal does when it’s cold,” Comnick explained of the materials’ reaction. “Sort of further degrading these instruments, but also the idea of preservation and even cryogenics. You’re still destroying it, but there’s this long-term idea of preservation.”
In its statement and especially its assembly, risk and chance become bearing factors on the project’s outcome, and sometimes for the better.
The collection of instruments proved the first integral step to the story.
“It was really important to me that all these instruments were already rendered useless, which is the same thing in the first phase, or the people who donated them deemed the value in this project was greater than an attempt to refurbish them,” she said of the collection. “So they’re either broken, considered beyond repair, or poorly made in the beginning.”
Secondly, her crisp plan for how it would work involved a meadow with iconic Flagstaff imagery in the background and a snowstorm rolling in from the horizon line. But, as is the case with many things, the artist had to eschew a perfectly-timed chain of events for flexibility.
After a mid-December snow dump closed the road to her initial location, another collaborator suggested Kendrick Park. Since, she and Neumann have traveled to the space both together or separately nearly every day since December 22 to document incoming storms and how much of the pile is covered.
They also make sure the precious pile remains undisturbed by tourists, residents of the nearby community, or worse, stolen.
“Risk is daunting, scary and interesting, but looking at video footage after the first dump, the way the violin was positioned, the shape of the wood comes out,” Comnick said. “I would never think to invent that, but it happened, therefore on the paintings I can figure out ways to emphasize that.”
The artist plans other stylistic departures for these future panels. From reimaging the landscape through non-objective abstraction as she explores color and depiction of place to a grand finale, Comnick has incredibly big plans up her sleeve. With an ear to the ground one can tap into the silent orchestra.
Keep up to date with “Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra” and learn more about the artist at www.juliecomnick.com.