Even with the installations still taking shape, electric anticipation coursed through the Coconino Center for the Art’s main gallery Wednesday afternoon. After more than a year of work—and even longer in planning—“Fires of Change” had arrived.
Born in partnership between the Flagstaff Arts Council, the Southwest Fire Science Consortium and the Landscape Conservation Initiative, CCA’s newest exhibition speaks for the forest’s history captured within its innermost rings. It speaks for fire ecology and those who strive for the overall health of woodlands and global communities.
Through 11 artists from around the Southwest under the guidance of curator Shawn Skabelund, viewers will learn about the effects of fire management policies, climate change in the Southwest and megafires from a uniquely collaborative perspective.
The show runs Sept. 5 through Oct. 31 at Coconino Center for the Arts.
The project officially began with a two-day excursion into the Kaibab National Forest surrounding Grand Canyon’s North Rim in September, 2014. The artists learned side-by-side with National Park Service experts the multi-faceted structure of fire policy and the effects of wildfire—both human and naturally ignited—through visiting former burn sites.
As the trip ended, Prescott artist Julie Comnick stopped the caravan leaving the forest long enough to retrieve a chunk of charcoal from the 2006 Warm Fire. The artist, and the others, brought back more than scientific knowledge.
Comnick used pieces of that small log to sketch interpretations of 14 recent wildfires with materials from each burn site, including the 2011 Schultz to 2013’s Yarnell Hill fire. From the moment she began collecting charcoal, Comnick envisioned how she would approach this project. But many found their ideas constantly evolving to suit their materials, time and feasibility over the last 11 months.
In CCA’s gallery, the 19 porcelain helmets Katharina Roth of Sedona formed in her NAU ceramics studio space clung to a section of the back wall painted mossy green.
“I had completely different ideas when we left,” Roth noted. “I usually go with my gut feeling; with what grabs me. I thought of the 19 firefighters in Yarnell. It is very emotional for me, still, to think about it. I thought to create an installation with helmets.”
These helmets commemorate not only Roth’s contribution to “Fires of Change.” Rather, in number and her chosen medium’s archival nature, they memorialize lives lost.
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“It’s capturing a moment in time. It’s a memory,” Roth said in an April interview. In her studio, her idea evolved. She pointed to one of her first attempts at recreating a wildland firefighter’s helmet—molded from one a Hotshot lent her. The fired example is more impactful than stark white porcelain, she said, which is devoid of the natural colored painted by fire and ash.
For Roth, her process evokes memory and teamwork, she said, “like the Hotshots work in teams.”
“It’s hot, it’s intense, it’s a lot of work. You work between four to six hours for three to four days and you’re black,” she said, mimicking wiping soot from her hands. “Your clothing is black—everything. You’re sweaty and dirty.”
Roth noted her initial idea involved creating a fire shelter out of porcelain to portray what she saw demonstrated on the North Rim—like what the Granite Mountain firefighters were forced to deploy. She felt, though, the result achieved her goal of speaking for the firefighters and what she had learned.
Flagstaff-based multimedia artist Helen Padilla explained in a recent interview “Fires of Change” opened the door to what she considers the rest of her life’s work.
Exploration and evolution on the part of artists—whom she called the “feelers of society”—will influence the type of art people across the world will be seeing in the future, she noted.
When Padilla returned to her home situated within a deeply forested pocket west of town, she found the most profound experience related to this project was also with the fire shelters. She watched dozens of videos in which firefighters detailed their experiences with the silver blocks they hoped to never have to deploy.
The artist then found her entire idea had morphed. In a matter of 30 minutes, she said, she went from thinking she would hand-build the shelter to receiving seven donated bricks of the silver material from a local fire station. A whopping 966 tiny fortune teller-shaped pieces later, “Bang Mirror” now faces the gallery’s east wall.
“I wanted this to be a mirror you don’t see yourself in, but one that looks back at you,” she said.
The themes behind the piece reflect Padilla’s second installation. Using fabric gathered from Goodwill stores in Flagstaff, “Red Flag” is a multi-pronged commentary on humanity’s collective contribution to climate change—and thus forest health. It also speaks to the “red flag days” during an active burn, and Flagstaff’s shortened moniker, Flag. A delicate flourish ties the piece together with a gold-leafed pillar of ponderosa pine, salvaged from the artist’s home site.
As for Roth’s installation, the final touch is a 20th helmet resting on a natural wood base. In the upturned vessel, she situated a single aspen coiling toward the ceiling. She learned even after the stand-replacement Warm Fire, the mixed conifer gave way to a blanket of aspen—a new forest growing in the wake of devastation.