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  • Writer's pictureConfluence Lab

Fuel Loading "Feeling Fuel"

above: works by Fuel Loading artstis Suze Woolf & Kelsey Grafton

As the introductory statement of the Fuel Loading exhibit makes clear, fire practitioners and managers tend to classify fuels by type: dry grasses, shrubs, dense stands of conifers, logging slash piles, etc. These categories emphasize that “fuel” is a designation inherently concerned with material and materiality. But, of course, fuel also signifies energy, in that fires burn differently depending on the type of material that feeds them: grasses are quick and hot, while slash piles tend to burn slow and steady. It thus makes sense that much of the artwork in the Fuel Loading exhibit foregrounds the energetic presence—and emotional valences—of specific materials.

Take, for example, the pieces that make up Kelsey Grafton’s Trees of Morrow series. These sculptures are directly composed of the raw materials of fire’s fuel. As she explains in her artist statement, Grafton draws from her family homestead in Colville, Washington to “hand-harvest earthenware clay, pull textures from fallen structures, and gather artifacts left behind by my ancestors as a way of preserving our fading family history through art-making.” As structures like Becoming and Morphosis illustrate, this material engagement increasingly concerns itself with fire—as the homestead has become vulnerable to wildfire and the family busies themselves with tree thinning and slash pile burning, the fuel that provides the energy to Grafton’s artistic practice becomes the same fuel driving fire prevention measures on the site. For Grafton, this material fuel lends her creative practice an optimistic energy; Becoming clearly juxtaposes preventative burning with new life, as it depicts fresh berries growing from charred wood.

Suze Woolf’s work shares this fuel and energy. She was formerly an artist who painted “beautiful intact landscapes,” yet works like Splintered and Logged, Drifted, and Burned provide us with intimate portraits of individual burned trees. This focus and its detailed representation of the fuel’s transformation by fire is a means of mediating Woolf’s anxieties about human impacts on the climate. As she suggests, the carbonized, “eaten away” snags of her paintings task us with finding “unusual beauty” in what is all too easy to dismiss as used up. 

The Northwest Fire Science Consortium’s informational pamphlet “What is Fuel?” tells us that “fuel is the only component of the fire triangle that land owners and managers can influence.” In this declaration, they confidently position fuel as within our control. Yet several of the pieces in Fuel Loading call this confidence into question. Kate Lund’s imposing Brush Fit, which she composed of rip-stop nylon, wool, flannel, and fleece, evokes the emotional experience of being caught in too much fuel—of not being able to influence this particular corner of the fire triangle, no matter the equipment that you have on hand. Lund explains that a “brushfit” is a temper tantrum that you throw “when you succumb to the challenges of walking in an overgrown forest.” The particular brushfit that inspires Lund’s sculpture took place as she and a crew were hiking 50 lb bladder bags into a small fire in the steep terrain of Northern Idaho. Lund and the crew begin their hike with positive attitudes, buoyed in part by their gear and saws. Yet the density of the forest quickly defeated them. She explains: “I remember stopping, grabbing a hold of a tree so that I didn’t roll down the hill, and thinking, What am I doing here? Why do I do this to myself? Why are we even putting this fire out when this whole hillside needs to burn anyway?”

Kate Lund's installation Brush Fit

Brush Fit powerfully visualizes this transition from idealized expectations to frustrated realities, progressing from clean lines to a frazzled mass that looms over us. The piece is dominated by a literal increase in the density of materials and poses a vital question: how much control over fuels do we have, really? aj miccio’s drawing of the Davis Burn Scar and Anne Acker-Mathieu’s acrylic collages—especially Ignition Casino and Fields of Fuel—replicate the affective tension of Lund’s brushfit. Like Lund’s sculpture, miccio’s drawing and Acker-Mathieu’s paintings relish in the density of visual information to provoke emotional responses from viewers. In their packedness and abundance of detail and color, respectively, they too suggest that we may not be as in control of fuel and/or our emotions as we might assume. 

from left: works by Anne Acker-Mathieu, aj miccio, and Amikio Matsuo & Brad Monsma

The airier pieces in Fuel Loading offer me some relief, albeit fleetingly. Amiko Matsuo and Brad Monsma’s Pyrometric Whirl initially provokes in me the opposite emotional and affective experience of Brush Fit. Whereas my anxiety increases as my eye travels upward in the latter, I feel a sense of calm as I scroll from bottom to top of Matsuo and Monsma’s image. A dense red clump lifts into ethereal black and white whisps, providing me with a sense of upward relief and evaporation. I am released from the brushfit of the painting’s bottom half, finding solace in a dance of vapors. But, fitting to form, this respite is as transitory as the swirling air that evokes it—the longer that I look, the more that bottom half and top half intermesh such that I’m confronted with the process of one becoming the other. The whisps are not relief from the red clump but its latest iteration; as I learn that the red pigment of the painting stems from the fire retardant Phos-chek, I am once again thinking about fuel, feelings, and control. Matsuo and Monsma explain that their work, especially the “wound-like” Phos-check marks on paper,  expresses “the ironies of fire suppression rhetoric while also suggesting the rage of a combustion and intolerant political landscape.”

“The whole earth is fuel-loaded,” they continue, and their work demands that we grapple with the full extent of our desire to influence any (or all?) parts of the fire triangle. I now see the painting as depicting the transformation of material from a site-specific measure of prevention into a traveling vector of toxicity waiting for our inhale, and become aware of how we, literally, become and embody the very fuels that we add to today’s firescapes. The artists’ connection of the physical and cultural fires that dominate contemporary life in the American West broadens the scope and urgency of this tension: how do our suppression efforts—suppression of fire, but also of political debates and schisms—become fuels in and of themselves? And to what sort of energy do these fuels give rise?

further considerations contributed by Confluence Lab member & exhibition juror Erin James, December 2023.


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