Various hues of aspen leaves coated with encaustic beeswax hang suspended in long strands over a broken circle of cinders from a fire site in “Rebirth” (2017), an elegant installation created by Bryan David Griffith as part of his creative practice elevating ecological themes. He’s one of several Arizona-based artists exploring wildfires, motivated in part by their own experiences with fire.
Griffith was on the East Coast when he got word that he needed to evacuate his Flagstaff home during the Slide Fire of 2014, which eventually burned over 21,000 acres in a heavily forested part of northern Arizona. “All my life’s work was in the house,” he told Hyperallergic, reflecting on the confluence of events that shifted his focus towards making work related to wildfires.
Just days before, he’d been invited to participate in Fires of Change, a group show in Flagstaff addressing “the increase in severity, size and number of wildfires in the West and their impact on the landscape.” The exhibition, which originated at Coconino Center for the Arts in late 2015, was inspired in part by In a Time of Change: The Art of Fire, a 2012 exhibition in Fairbanks, Alaska that brought together artists, fire professionals, and scientists. Eleven artists attended a fire science boot camp before creating new works for Fires of Change, which was also shown in Tucson, Arizona before another iteration made its way to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The show was curated by Shawn Skabelund, an artist and curator based in Flagstaff whose installation work often explores issues related to colonization and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny that undergirds settler culture — including the ways federal land management policies aimed at suppressing fire have historically run counter to Indigenous practices.
“The main exhibition goal of the scientists and fire ecologists was to educate the public about the value of fire, but my main focus was aesthetics and presenting forms the public wasn’t used to seeing,” recalls Skabelund. “I really wanted the artists to go outside their comfort zone and think beyond the mediums they were used to working with.”
That’s just what Griffith did, working in the home studio the fire never reached in 2014. Instead of centering the photography at the heart of his existing art practice, Griffith created installation pieces using fire-related materials such as trees, burnt embers, and leaves gathered from the forest floor to prompt conversations about ecological destruction, habitat loss, and climate change. “I wanted to bring people into the visceral, sensory experience of a fire that’s still smoldering, using simple materials like burnt wood and smoke to help people connect with the forests they may never get to experience in person,” Griffith said.
Increasing wildfire frequency has prompted the US Forest Service to shift its terminology from “wildfire seasons” to “wildfire years,” and Arizona had already experienced several major fires by the middle of 2022. In April, the Tunnel Fire burned thousands of acres north of Flagstaff, including the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. In June, a fire in Tucson and two fires near Flagstaff “gutted several buildings at a national observatory, forced evacuation of a historic monument, and threatened other archeological artifacts,” according to reporting by The Washington Post.
Julie Comnick has been working with fire since 2012, when she launched her Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra project examining the scale and pace of cultural destruction. She’d played violin for many years, and decided to use the instrument as a symbol of classical cultural traditions for a series of paintings and videos that showed a large pile of violins being consumed by fire in the landscape.
Before moving to Flagstaff, Comnick lived in Prescott, Arizona, where the Duce Fire came within a mile of her house in June 2013. That same year, lightning sparked the Yarnell Hill Fire near Prescott, which became one of the state’s deadliest wildfires on June 30, when 19 of 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives battling the fire. “What we face in terms of ecological systems feels like things are spiraling out of control,” said Comnick. “We’re seeing the displacement of people, flooding from fire scars in the landscape, and other impacts of climate change accelerating.” For Fires of Change, Comnick presented a dozen works from her Ashes to Ashes series addressing ecological themes. The series pairs her drawings based on archival photographs of Arizona wildfire sites with pieces of charcoal she’s sourced from those same locations.
The exhibition also included 100% Contained by Saskia Jordá, an artist based in Phoenix, Arizona, whose work centering terrain and migration continues to incorporate subtle references to fire. Conceived by Jordá as “a soft sculptural and symbolic map” representing the perimeter of the 2012 Gladiator Fire in Crown King, Arizona, the piece includes 37.89 miles of black yarn crocheted by the artist and dozens of volunteers. It’s the same fire that destroyed a creative space designed by Jordá’s husband, architect Victor Sidy, who installed a significant portion of the structure the night before it went up in flames.
In 2013, Jordá and Sidy installed a series of bright yellow viewing stations along the path of the Gladiator Fire, and created a map to help provide context for viewers. Titled “Hotshots,” the work was installed for High Desert Test Sites 2013 and featured in the recent Disturbances in the Field exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.
For Arizona-based artists using fire to probe the depths of cultural and ecological destruction, monumental works recently exhibited at Phoenix Art Museum, including Cornelia Parker’s “Mass (Colder Darker Matter)” (1997) and Teresita Fernández’s “Fire (United States of the Americas), 2,” (2017–19) provide valuable context. Parker used charred remains from a church fire to create a form suspended from the ceiling and Fernández used solid charcoal elements to render a map of the United States.
As massive fires have dominated the headlines, recent exhibitions such as Forest ⇌ Fire in California, Facing Fire in Utah, and Rethinking Fire in Oregon have created pathways for divergent ideas and deeper dialogue.
In Portland, the World Forestry Center’s Discovery Museum is showing Griffith’s work through the end of the year. Beth Ames Swartz will be showing three fire-based works in the Fire Transforms exhibition that opens September 17 at the Palo Alto Arts Center in northern California. The Phoenix-based artist has been using fire as both material and subject matter for decades as part of her art practice grounded in concepts of birth, death, and rebirth.
For her Fire series, Swartz layered paper, acrylic paint, and elements of the earth such as dirt or sand, using a “process ritual” that mirrors her conceptual framework. She burns her materials, mutilates them with screwdrivers or other objects, and reassembles the results to form mixed media abstractions that speak to her view of fire as “a transforming energy source.”
Meanwhile, the Fire & Water exhibition opening September 24 at The Gallery at Tempe Center for the Arts just east of Phoenix will highlight the work of several artists, including Anthony Mead, who uses materials such as charcoal, wood, and soot to create paintings, prints, and sculptures that investigate relationships between humans and fire.
“Artists can provide visual stories as points of entry into conversations about the health of forests, and the destructive and healing aspects of fire,” explained Jordá. “We have the illusion that we can control the landscape—but the landscape does what it needs to do.”