NORTH RIM -- Tall pines gave way to small hills blanketed with sprawling clusters of golden-leafed aspen. Charred trunks jutted from the shimmering canopy and stood stark and alone against the cloudless blue sky. Some of the artists on this trip placed fingertips over their mouths as they imagined the former thickly huddled pines.

In this spot, a unique project over two years in the making has ignited between fire experts and 11 artists from Flagstaff and the Southwest. An immense body of scientific knowledge came to light during three days in the Kaibab National Forest at the National Park.

The jarring scene of a forest fire's wake is constant for Southwest residents. In this case, each hand-selected crafter is on the tour based on an exceptional body of work. Invited or juried, they applied to tackle this hot-button issue because of a shared connection with fire.

The Flagstaff Arts Council, sponsored by the Southwest Fire Science Consortium and the Landscape Conservation Initiative, will present the conceptual exhibition emerging from this experience during the Festival of Science at the Coconino Center for the Arts. From Sept. 4 through Oct. 31, 2015, visitors will feel the warming “Fires of Change.”

Forest for the trees

The team found themselves in neck-high aspen and thorny black locust shrubs—the new forest growing in the wake of the 2006 Warm Fire.

Dave Robinson, Kaibab National Forest assistant fire management officer, explained a lightning strike in June of 2006 ignited a low- to medium-intensity blaze. Forest Service officials let it burn as a means to clean up decaying needles and replenish soil nutrients. Two and a half weeks later, the weather shifted drastically and ultimately led to the vegetative loss of 59,000 acres or 90 square miles.

Some patches burned with high heat or “intensity,” causing a near stand-replacement fire.

“It’s not totally a stand replacement because you can look here on the horizon and we still have large ponderosa pines that survived,” Robinson noted, pointing to the green needles in the remaining overstory. “I think if it had been post-monsoon we wouldn’t have seen this large-scale stand-replacement in the mixed conifer. I think everything was just lined up to be hot and dry.”

To understand the future of this section of Kaibab National Forest, and others similarly affected on the Colorado Plateau, the 11 artists of various disciplines—paint, poetry, photography, ceramics and fibers—were guided through three other significant burn sites, both managed and wild, from Sept. 22 to Sept. 24. They will reconnect science and explore societal, cultural and emotional impacts through creative means for the next 11 months.

Craig Goodworth journeyed from the Slovak Republic to participate. The Oregon-based poet and installation artist said he’s always questioned how and if “art can help us better feel the crises that arise in the natural world? Is art useful in that way?”

Coming to life

“Fires of Change” curator Shawn Skabelund grasps fire culture firsthand. The Flagstaff conceptual artist and former hotshot was recognized with a 2014 Viola Award for his solo, fire-laden CCA show, “Virga: The Hunt for Water.”

In his pieces and ideas about what art truly is, he honors the integrity of the material. He encourages artists to listen to that “voice in the back of your head.”

“Talk about those materials. Talk about what tree species that was; what fire that was on; how big that fire was. This is where it gets into the facts they were teaching us….It’s the connection to the local landscapes they live in, that’s the important part. This is why it’s a global issue,” he said.

At each burn site, Julie Comnick, Prescott College faculty member and large-scale painter, collected hunks of charcoal. She drew with bits during discussions in the woods, and as the vans recoiled along Highway 67, she stopped the procession. She emerged from the woods with a piece of pine from the Warm Fire, and cradled the burned log back to the van, the start of a collection for charcoal drawings.

As a curator and artist Skabelund encourages work that evokes startling questions and emotions surrounding an issue where science doesn’t have those tools. He outlined the problem of mismanagement of the forests and excluding fire from the ecosystem.

“I want the public to know fire is just as viable as air, water and earth. Those are the four ingredients to making a healthy forest. And I want, as an artist, people to think outside the box with fire, but I also want them to think outside the box about what art is.”

The day after returning from the North Rim, the artists gathered at CCA and discussed their roles in the future of this project. Many plan to leap from their studied media; others will take this learned information and reframe it. They will post photos and budding ideas on the LCI's blog. The blog link and exhibition page are viewable at www.flagartscouncil.org.

“We may do these things, and people may not appreciate them, just like people don’t appreciate a burnt forest,” Skabelund said. “But there’s something so beautiful about a burnt forest because you know [it] has the potential to be another lovely, healthy forest compared to a forest where fire’s been suppressed for a hundred years; and it’s only potential is to either go in and use fire as a means to help it, or [mechanically] thin it out.”

In the exchange, some artists noticed their perceptions had morphed over just three days, and would continue to evolve after visiting the Slide Fire site the next day.

Still, the essence felt true: A forest does not lose its beauty simply because it has burned, and with enlightened eyes one can see not just what is gone, but the emerald green saplings that have grown.

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