Fire Debris Art and New Environmental Consciousness:
Artists as Archeologists of Wildfire
By Robert Chianese
There are so many fires raging in the west at any onetime that it’s difficult to keep in memory their names, locations, intensities, areas consumed, fire-fighters mustered, houses and structures burned, and, sadly, lives lost. Each new one in California contends for title the biggest yet. We seem to run out of hyperbole describing them and communicating their horrors.
They are being memorialized, however, in an unique and unforeseen way—through rescued mementos displayed as art and apocalyptic imagery in visual and sculptural form. Almost every major fire has produced menacing scenes for harrowing photos of the blazes and their aftermath and left behind salvaged objects that often get put on local display. These fire-scorched objects serve as cultural artifacts of the lands and forest and homes and communities changed and lost in western fires. They don’t have to be ancient for holding profound significance to those who have lost just about everything. Those artists, gallery directors and the very people who have lost just about everything serve as archeologists of wildfire.
Galleries easily fill with fire-seared detritus in metal, wood, and glass, making their own grim statement just by being put on a wall. This sad assortment often gets a mood lift from photographic images of rescue, regrowth, and regeneration from the fire’s aftermath. It’s hard to let catastrophe linger in the heart and mind for audiences looking for some meaning, understanding, and comprehension about what’s happening to us and the planet.
However, a new sort of art is emerging from the flames—art that uses fire debris in the making of art. This is not just mementos, relics, or objects of mourning left in the fire’s wake, but the construction of a work from the very burned elements generated by sparks, flames and smoke—fire debris as media. This becomes more than “found” art. Artists act as fieldwork archeologists collecting, dredging up and bringing back the very stuff of fire to their studios and galleries for use as their creative material. This shifts viewer consciousness in a profound new way about what destruction by wildfire fire means. It prompts reconsiderations about the transformational power of heat and fire and gives emotional substance to both the forging of art by extreme forces and the painful realities of global warming.
ADDED PARAGRAPH: In a strange way, this art humanizes fire, takes the threatening blaze and its aftermath and modifies them, puts a human signature on them, grasps them with creative energy, and brings them into the studio and gallery to be looked at, contemplated, reflected upon. Fire in many cultures signifies creative energy itself for artists and scientists. Fire’s fury may be an artist’s familiar companion, a muse. It can then reveal a frightening beauty, the power of nature modified by our aesthetic imagination. Such art is still a memento of loss, but becomes a reminder of our need to control it the way the artists control their media. We revisit our need to prevent it, encapsulated in a stunning image or object, which may prompt us more than a public service bulletin, to change our ways. Thus, fire debris art and narratives generated by it lead to new understanding of the realities of drought and global warming and expose the contributions of the human hand and mind to both its creation and control.
Hiroko Yoshimoto, Coming Back #2, charcoal collected at burn site,
watercolor on paper, 42”x108.” Montecito Tea Fire, Santa Barbara,
from her “Rising from the Ashes Series Exhibit,” Ventura College, CA, November 2009.
Artist Hiroko Yoshimoto mixes salvaged charcoal and ash with other media to produce this watercolor, capturing the burnt hues and texture of trees raked by fire. The sensuous black tonalities from the charred trunks and branches give a tortured feel and funereal look to the jumbled disorder of trees—scorched, barren, and twisted in almost anthropomorphic pose. We take in this large work through proprioceptive sensations, putting our own body into the images.
There is however an evocation of former vegetal energy in the curves and turns of the thick trees, as if the fire has exposed some pattern of growth or genetic molecule of arboreal life, broken, arrested, but still evident. The greening of the ground around them points to the regenerative power that fire can bring to forests, coating the forest floor with a delicate living mat “rising from the ashes.” Fragile sprouts emerge from cracks in the bark, a sign that some forest trees not only can survive fire but may depend on it for renewal. As an artist, Yoshimoto says, “I will be satisfied if my art can generate in the viewing public a sense of awe and respect of the destructive powers of wildfires, and at the same time if it can make them realize, as a metaphor of life arising from death, the indestructible force of regeneration of nature that sprouts green buds out of the ashes.” (Alicia Doyle interview, Ventura County Star, August 26, 2009)
Yoshimoto’s tangled trees suggest our own entangled engagement with forests, a disastrous one at times, and make us aware of our complicit role in wildfires. We also contain the potential for regeneration of forests and ourselves, particularly if we learn to curb our appetites for fossil fuel burning. Other works in her 12-part series convey the dread intensity of fire, the bone pile detritus of fallen branches for example–an all too human metaphor. However the Tea Fire struck early in the extended drought that beset California, and even more destructive fires would follow. The artist here feels the need to give the forest and us prospects of renewal.
Things would get worse. The Camp Fire in Northern Butte County, ignited by a faulty electric transmission line on November 8, 2018, would rage for 17 days until it killed 85 people, covered 62,053 ha, and destroyed 18,804 structures in the city of Paradise. How to depict this deadliest and most destructive conflagration in California’s history? Would artists even want to commemorate its fury, or hint at the potentially beneficial effects of wildfires?
Stephanie Taylor makes a strong statement about this fire’s grim reality in her large Wildfire Wind drawing. She retrieved charcoal from just one destroyed home and smudged it on plastic media, creating ominous backgrounds of hash marks and swirls, then drew a ghostly tangle of trunks, branches and limbs, fire-transformed trees once again signaling the ecological impact of climate change. The white flecks on the branches suggest wounds, as this forest primeval becomes twisted rubble, a trap. The scale and flowing motion of the trees draws us in so we are mesmerized witnesses before this dark scene, unable to extricate ourselves from this tortured maze of a forest. It’s almost cartoonish in its exaggerated, carnivalesque contortions, a fun house of horror, a bit too threatening to imagine what its victims may have seen or felt or encountered if they had a chance to flee the actual fire.
Stephanie Taylor, Wildfire Wind, 7’ x 12’, charcoal from one home in the Paradise Camp Fire, November 8, 2018 on Grafix Dura-lar, a non-woven plastic drafting material.
Taylor turned the drawing vertical and dripped white paint across it, suggesting the unnatural winds that drove the fire, called Diablos in the north. These broken streaks could also represent the powerlines that sparked the fire in the first place—our thoughtlessness streaks across the drawing. This is a narrative only hinted at by her title but few who suffered the effects of these fragmented powerlines would miss it.
The retrieved charcoal here forces us to rub our sensibilities into the work, feel it, struggle our way into it, as this fire-debris artist brings the basic medium of burnt wood into the gallery and makes it display the unpleasant hyperreality of climate change. Whatever narrative viewers concoct, it will likely struggle to match the threatening power of this image.
Abstract imagery also can convey the horrors of destructive fire, but also suggest its subtle unconventional beauty. Amiko Matsuo collected ash debris from the 2013 Spring fire near California State University Channel Islands where she taught, applied it to a large canvas and added a phos-chek border. Here the chemical fire-retardant becomes a medium for expressing the threat and power of fire and also serves as a symbolic barricade. The red substance seems to block the advance of the black and brown smoke of the distant flames, as if the painting itself is afire but at the same time shielding us from danger.
Amiko Matsuo, Landscape: Ash and Phos-Chek, approximately 48” x 96”
ash and fire retardant on Hiromi paper, 2018
This abstract rendering of active wildfire forces us to make sense of what is a curiously beautiful design, something she labels a “landscape,” while the red shimmering foreground could entrance, even overwhelm the viewer as fire often can and suggest how tenuously we are protected from flames. The red panel scored with repeating patterns of black squiggles might also suggest Asian brush work or wood lacquer art, bringing together the fierce energies of nature’s fire with the cultural inheritance of sedate and sophisticated art. The work suggests how we might tame such wildfires in actuality and in our imaginations—with the application of phos-chek and the transfiguration of fire into art.
Matsuo extends this aesthetic transfiguration of material by fire in a work entitled Bat Cone Ash. With her artistic partner and colleague Brad Monsma, Matsuo coiled locally sourced clay into the shape of traffic cones, glazed them and, with ash from local fires, drew traditional Asian designs on them and then fired them in a controlled out door burn.
Amiko Matsuo and Brad Monsma, Bat Cone Ash, high-fire clay, underglaze, ash, 2016
This evokes the artist as fiery creator, here making fire serve the ends of culture. These ideas are ancient, with the Greeks’ ur-artist Hephaestus at the forge, or Hindu Agni the Vedic fire God who performs transformational rites of passage for the purposes of weddings, cremations and expanding human consciousness. More recently poet William Blake enacts fiery creation itself in his famous poem “The Tyger” (1794) where the artist recapitulates the act of creation even as he questions its source:
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
Blake’s speaker interrogates an absent creator without diminishing the terrors of the awful process or its product. Wildfire holds its terrors for its human victims and vulnerable nature, while at the same time providing practical energy for making things and creative inspiration for art. Nature and culture come together in many of these artists who plunder fire debris for sources of their artistic media.
Conceptual artist Christine Atkinson goes a step further and turns wildfire into an arresting sculpture. She mixes salt and epoxy with field-collected debris and forges a square block, placing its stark geometries in front of us on a polished wood table, as if a laboratory specimen of her excavations. Her complete remolding of natural fire materials might suggest the formation of coal, or scruffy gem stone, or earth core or layer. As a seemingly unearthed quarried solid, it evokes a time capsule of earlier, ancient fires or the tragic accumulations of recent conflagrations.
There’s a gouge or two in her Fragmentation, variation II, a fault line of sorts, reminding us this cubed remnant can crack, break apart, becoming even more fragmented as it does in the third variation of her series of wildfire solids. Thus fire detritus is hardly solid at all, fragile and easily crumbled, an insubstantial ground cover that blanks out living things. This is what the forest, the trees, leaves, roots, become through our reckless alchemy. Atkinson‘s cube confronts our refusal to look at what climate change has wrought.
Christine Atkinson, “Fragmentation, variation II,”
epoxy, salt and wildfire debris, 5.5″ x 5.5″ x 5.5,” 2020
Fire has always been considered a source of spiritual transformation, but here the deadened solidified materials of fire suggests the coldness of space, emptiness, a blank otherness, without reference to the living natural world that makes up its substance. We stare and wonder what to say. Who or what is transformed? Metamorphosis here has led to something inert, lifeless, a chunk of frozen soot. The work almost checks our urge to locate it in a world we think we know. Our narrative impulse has no place to start or end. Such a reaction may do more to force recognition of the dangerous pointlessness of our environmental violations.
In a complete shift of media, photographer Luther Gerlach employs early photographic methods to capture the harrowing aftermath of contemporary wildfires. He takes a large wooden camera and portable darkroom into the field, in this case the woods burnt from the 2017 Thomas Fire very near his home. He coats a glass plate with wet collodion, a syrupy light-sensitive medium and creates a negative, which takes about 10 minutes exposure, and prints it. Then he sprinkles fire-debris ash and sulfur-laden water from a nearby warm spring directly on the print. This by some uncanny process produces preternatural effects, resulting in shadowy afterimages of mysterious forms, here appropriately called “ghost trees.” The once living trees seem to give off smokey emanations of their former lives, as if the fire has released them.
Luther Gerlach, Ghost Trees, Poignant Portfolio no. 6, July 2018,
using historical wet plate process with 8 x 10” wooden field camera
That substances from fire-damaged woods can generate gloomy mysterious imagery gives new resonance to the alchemical power of fire and water, as if we have been missing the magical powers that fire debris contains within itself. The emanations suggest something other worldly, alien, perhaps from the lower depths, from where the underground sulfurous waters might also be said to flow.
This different view of fire effects provokes new reflections on its impacts, and these strange images also project a stunning kind of beauty. The shadowy sepia scrim floating over the trunks and delicate branches suggest a hidden earlier world we only get a glimpse of, as if the artist pulls back the curtain ever so slightly from the covert reality of fire. The sophisticated technological but antique photographic process produces fantasy reflections that can only puzzle us about what else we are missing and what kind of ephemeral, dark beauty we are being asked to contemplate.
Fire-debris art seems to be able to take so many extravagant forms dependent on the imagination and ingenuity of the artist. Kim Abeles takes this art form to a new level. Over the years, she has made stencils that allow smog and air pollution particulates to filter through and leave gray images on various backgrounds. Her Smog Collectors’ series includes commemorative plates of various US Presidents and other global leaders, who have either added to or helped reduce the quality of the planet’s air.
Kim Abeles, Titanic Deck Chairs, stencils of photographs, collecting ash and other particulates on a Pasadena, CA rooftop during the Bob Cat Fire,
September 6, 2020 from her Smog Collectors’ series
In recent “smog paintings,” she stenciled images of the chairs on the Titanic and set them on the roof of her mother’s Pasadena house during the dark days of the Bob Cat Fire. It burned for nearly a month in the Angeles National Forest above L.A., clouding skies and sifting ash over a huge area that had not seen such air pollution since the worse days before modern emission controls. The Titanic chairs make the point about our global ship about to be sunk not by an iceberg but by the warming of the whole planet beset with wildfires.
Abeles’ conceptual art is direct, makes its environmental statement unsparingly, and through its elaborate multi-disciplinary processes, turns the fires themselves into artists of international protest.
Fire-debris art reveals human ingenuity in transforming the wreckage of fire into profound sources of understanding. As archeologists of fire, these artists become fieldworkers, collecting and bringing back specimens, making us look at them in different contexts, using them in new ways, experimenting with their textures, colors, and substances. Science and environmentalism can explain, illustrate and document the sources and consequences anthropogenic global warming, but what these intriguing works of art bring to the discussion are images and objects that call on our need to interpret them on our own, in the private world of our troubled consciousness and emotional awareness.
These artists make new forms of both beauty and terror from the waste of catastrophe. They leave records of extreme occurrence, an encounter with the uncanny, and put their own personal mark on it, using the human hand to leave a sign on gallery walls of something magically experienced. They can serve as modern cave paintings or pictographs.
This places us front and center in our human-caused fiery obliterations, exposing us, we might say, as slow acting arsonists. Our all too apparent transformations of the planet’s environment get both mirrored and ameliorated by these artists of wildfire rubble, soot, dust and ash. They significantly suggest the transformation we must perform on ourselves and the planet if we are to curb these conflagrations and give the planet a chance to recover from and adjust to what we have wrought. We must, like them, become environmental activists and artists of transformation, working our damages into new forms of insight and ecological health.
American Scientist magazine Nov/Dec 2021