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  • Writer's pictureConfluence Lab

Fuel Loading: "The Build Up, the Burn, and the Burn Out"

Eric Onida’s Nearer My God to Thee depicts a marching band on fire, or perhaps a marching band emerging from fire; the bright reds of the band’s uniform, coupled with the yellows of their instruments, blend into the fire behind them, such that it’s difficult to tell where music becomes flame and flame becomes music. Onida explains that his paintings, produced with a unique recipe of egg tempera that blends viscous balsam, fossilized hard resins, egg yolk and water, depict “a society in the midst of its discontent, desperately trying to make sense of a destiny that often feels elusive, slipping beyond control and comprehension.” He also notes that paintings such as this one and Check, which similarly depicts an urban gas station emerging from (or perhaps about to be consumed by) threatening red flames that lurk in the background, draw conceptually from the fires depicted by the news media to be consuming the Pacific Northwest to represent “our social malaise as we grapple with the forces of unyielding natural and political environments.” These paintings certainly pose a stark question to me: what is the relationship between marching bands and wildfire? What about the city corner gas station–what role does it play in today’s firescape? Indeed, how, exactly, are ecological and social environments intertwined?


Lisa Cristinzo’s Marked Trail poses a similar set of questions. As a Canadian myself, I easily recognize the symbols of Canuck patriotism in her work: the wheat and the geese that frame the painting, the pine cones and snowy, cloudy fields that root us in the North, and the cottage core kitsch of the colored mailboxes, flags, and place signs. These images combine to evoke a knee-jerk sense of national pride–for me, they drudge up an overly simplistic and idealistic idea of Canada that typically lives in a land of maple leaves and syrup. Yet the red brush strokes on the left side of the painting niggle me. These strokes could echo the most iconic of Canadian images: the red leaf, standing brightly against a white background. But they also disturbingly look aflame. Once again, I ask myself: what are the connections between these tokens of national pride–geese, snow, red foliage–and the fires that increasingly appear where we think they should not? And how do these artifacts of culture in and of themselves fuel these fires?


Cristinzo’s artist’s statement gives us some answers to these questions. She notes that her current work, including Marked Trail and Birch Bark is like Snakeskin, came to her during a stay in a stone cabin. She began each morning collecting fuel for the wood stove, and “soon came to see the pieces of wood, newspaper, burnable objects, and ash as triangular compositions suitable for painting.” She quickly found herself delaying the fire each morning, pausing first to sketch her fuels before burning them. “Building a fire is a means of building a painting,” she states. Yet her process of accumulation-to-burn also speaks to a problem that she extends to the human species. “Our obsession with possession has caused a warming planet,” she writes, “leading to intense weather systems and catastrophic events. The planet, like many of us, is experiencing the build up, the burn, and the burn out.”


This emphasis on the build up, the burn, and the burn out is fitting for an exhibition on Fuel Loading. As the introduction to the exhibition explains, fire managers use this titular term to account for amounts and types of vegetative fuels in a given area. In the Pacific Northwest, these fuels include dry grasses, shrubs, and dense stands of conifers. But Onida and Cristinzo’s work helps us take a much broader view of fuel, not just as materials that accumulate on a forest floor but also as social and cultural practices that facilitate a build up and subsequent burn. Work like Nearer My God to Thee and Marked Trail helps me realize how the everyday practices of my life, including attending the local football game, filling my car with gas, and taking a quick break at a cottage up north, are all part of the complicated network of values, attitudes, and behaviors that shape the world in which I live. Fuel loads, not just via ecological accumulation, but also via social tradition and routine.


clockwise from top left: Martina Shenal, Eric Ondina, Lisa Cristinzo & Karin Bolender / Rural Alchemy Workshop (R.A.W.)


Karin Bolender’s work with the Rural Alchemy Workshop also emphasizes the link between fire and our region’s cultural traditions. Her playful Rodeo Queen of the Pyrocene autograph card presses on, as she explains, “generic myths of the ‘Western Way of Life’ as they manifest in Pacific Northwest forestry, ranching, conservation, and other land-management practices, in both obvious and less visible ways.” The Rodeo Queen’s ghostly face and crown of flames task viewers with the question: How do iconic (and beloved) cultural practices of the North American West respond to an epoch increasingly determined by fire?" She also demands that we rethink the role of cultural ambassadors of this region right now. Bolender explains that the Rodeo Queen “thunders in and out of arena spotlights, waving a spectacular, distracting red flag amidst the more hidden dimensions of cultural, capital, and fossil flows and legacies that shape the land as we (don’t) know it and fuel its range of conflagrations.” What are the Rodeo Queen’s responsibilities to this region and its legacies, both positive and negative, overt and hidden? And what responsibilities do we, as viewers and potential fans, have in protecting the cultural and ecological heritages that she symbolizes before they–and she–burn out? Finally, Marina Shenal’s photographs give a forward-looking spin on the entanglement of ecological and social fuels. Her portraits of slash piles gathered in La Pine, Oregon, in late November 2022, are a much more literal take on fuel loading: they depict the vegetative fuels that have been cleared and piled as part of forest fuels reduction work. In Slash Piles, the scale and size of the accumulated material might appear as a warning. The brown slash piles frame and center the green, living trees as if to highlight the violence and destruction of the clearing that has taken place. What was once living, green, and standing tall is now dead, brown, and on the ground. Yet upon a closer look I also see two additional timelines in Shenal’s photos. One looks backwards to grapple with the accumulation of ecological fuels, due in no small part to the cultural suppression inherent in fire suppression policies. In this timeline, accumulation goes hand-in-hand with erasure: the build up of vegetation in the Pacific Northwest is intimately linked to the nullification of indigenous fire practices that center around the regular implementation of “cultural burns”--controlled fires used to renew the land and culturally important plants and animals. The other timeline looks forward. These slash piles have been staged in colder, wetter months for an upcoming prescribed burn to reduce fuel loads in the forest. Viewing them with a longer, future-facing timeline, I understand them not as symbols of a healthy forest that once was, but as the fuel of the more fire-resilient forest that will be. As Shenal explains, her photographs inspired her to learn more about “efforts to create healthy forest ecosystems” in the Pacific Northwest including “reducing fuel loads during the winter season” to “reverse the decades-long fire suppression strategies that . . . have left the forests vulnerable to intense wildfires.” The intimate, close view of Slash Piles 06 and Slash Piles 07 encourages me to appreciate the intricate beauty of these fuels and reconfigures my understanding of the dead materials as emblems of destruction to those of creation. They signify land management practices that are moving beyond suppression-at-all-costs to embrace the implementation of fire for both ecological and cultural purposes. They thus stand as potent images of a different kind of fuel loading which can support different kinds of fire, renewing social and ecological landscapes.


The Online Exhibition Fuel Loading, presented by lab in conjunction with Prichard Art Gallery opened in September 2023. Contextualizing this exhibit, further considerations of this collection were contributed by Confluence Lab member Erin James. "The Build Up, the Burn, and the Burn Out" is part I of her response.

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