A few months ago, Flagstaff awoke to the smell of burning. For days, the Museum Fire lingered behind us, kept us up at night. The mountains, glowing bright red and orange, lit up the skyline. This may have been one of the more prominent fires to have occurred this year, but it was not the first and certainly not the last.
Artist Bryan David Griffith explores the impacts of forest fires in his show, Rethinking Fire, which exhibited earlier this year at the Fresno Art Museum. For Griffith, who began his photographic career as way to advocate for conservation, thinking about fire means recognizing the importance and dangers of fire. He has lived in Flagstaff for nearly 20 years, taking inspiration from the many wild and planned fires around him. The exhibit features collages of burnt tree remnants, wooden sculptures, aspen leaves saved from fire, photography and graphic art composed of smoke.
Art as a mode of expression can relay a depth of understanding that numbers and facts can’t. Living in areas where we are exposed to fire of different types, Griffith’s work asks us to see the dualities of both needing and being cautious with fire and in turn, the way we treat the world.
“If you want to live in a forest where frequent fires have occurred for hundreds of years, you have to understand and accept the risks that come with that. Human impacts over the last century or so, from clear-cutting to suppressing fires, have created conditions that underlie the massive fires and subsequent floods of today,” he says. “Climate change is getting a lot of attention, and rightly so. But a major wildfire risk we can control at the local level doesn’t get as much press: residential development in what firefighters call the Wildland-Urban Interface.”
In 2015, Griffith worked on Fires of Change, a collaboration with several artists, the Flagstaff Arts Council, the Southwest Fire Science Consortium and the Landscape Conservation Initiative at Northern Arizona University. Funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the exhibit explored the impact wildfires—growing in number, severity and size—had on Southwest landscapes.
“Over the course of that project, I received extensive training in the field from fire scientists. I was originally invited to join the project as a photographer, but partway through I realized that photography wasn’t the best way to convey what I wanted to say.”
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Sometimes, we move beyond what we’re comfortable with to create something that reveals how we truly feel about a particular topic. We see this in more than just photographers-turned-sculptors like Ben Craigie. Art seeks to challenge us, create new perspectives like Talaina Kor’s use of color or Shonto Begay’s patterning of memory in his paintings. We’re always growing and seeking new ways to relay information. Climate change, as a subject in art, then is also complex and working within dualities itself.
“We have to be careful to grow in a way that can make Flagstaff prosperous without slowly destroying the landscape and culture that makes it special. I try to photograph the human experience of being in a landscape—a way of connecting deeply with nature that is at risk as more natural places are lost to development and as people become more enamored with the virtual world on their screens and less connected to the natural world around them,” Griffith says.
Just as the sweltering heat of an October day is unusual to us, the remnants of a fire or act of climate change creates different shades of the world we may not recognize. Griffith points this out with the color of absence in his work. He provides both golden aspen leaves and charred leaves not in contrast to one another but in tandem with their life cycles.
If the world is a stage, then let’s open our eyes and take care of it.
“Art is not about mastering a medium. It is a way of seeing, a way of living in and responding to the world that transcends the boundaries between media. So look around your surroundings for materials that might marry well with the concepts you are exploring, and lend authenticity to your voice. Spend time listening to and conversing with new materials hands-on. Accept and incorporate their limitations, rather than trying to bend them to your will,” Griffith says.