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  • Writer's pictureConfluence Lab

Ground Truths: "Ubiquitous Fire"

A key theme of the art that features in the Online Exhibition Ground Truths collection is the ubiquity of fire. To live in the Pacific Northwest these days is to live with the pervasiveness of fire in its many guises–with the smoke that signals fire, over there; with the flames that signal fire, right now; and with the charred landscapes that signal fire, back then. Fire is present here, even when it is not. As Meredith Ojala notes in her response to the call for submissions, her oil on canvas Seeing Red is one painting in a set “made at the time when wildfires felt all-encompassing, when the world felt like it was on fire.” Her experience of driving through and living in fires in Southern Idaho, Eastern Oregon, and Washington in the summer of 2018 was so sweeping that it defined the daily rhythms of her life. She fell asleep looking out at wildfire from her windows and was woken up by the sounds of water-bombers. Even her dreams turned red. She notes that wildfires took over many of her paintings, even when she “had no plans to incorporate them.” The ubiquity of fire looms large in the wild abstractness of Ojala’s painting: we are unsure if we are looking at flames, or wildfire scars, or red dreams. The image is both beautiful and terrifying. It, like fire, appears multiplicitous–expansive and unbound to any one meaning or experience.

Meredith Ojala, All I See Is Red, oil on canvas, 18in x 24in, 2018

Margo Geddes, Standing Dead, silver gelatin print, 10in x 10in, 2022

Indeed, the very everywhereness of fire in our region is one way of conceptualizing the diversity of vantage points and materials with which the Ground Truths artists come at the subject. Margo Geddes’ work, too, grapples with the all-presence of wildfire. She notes that “fire season has become ubiquitous during the summer months in Montana,” and her photographs are one way of processing the “swiftly changing” landscape as it moves through fire’s various phases. Geddes’ prints illustrate fire’s mercurial nature as well as the rich range of emotions that fire can produce. The starkness of Standing Dead evokes familiar narratives of fire’s capacious destructiveness–its ability to rip through a landscape, leaving only wounds behind. But the patient observer will notice life among the ruins; what initially appears as a luscious shadow of a tree in the photograph’s bottom right corner encourages the eye to recalibrate and open itself up to the trees that live and thrive amongst the char. This emotional movement, from that of scars to that of regeneration, repeats in her photo of the Heart Boulder. While driving through the Bitterroot National Forest, Geddes spotted granitic boulders previously hidden amongst forest foliage but now exposed by fire’s wake. By capturing this moment of legibility, before the boulders are hidden again by fireweed, Geddes’ work illuminates yet another version of fire–one of reveal, regeneration, and renewal.

Ojala’s and Geddes’ descriptions of their artistic process suggests that one way to grapple with the ubiquity of fire is to drive through it, literally. This act of experiencing fire on the move, or moving with fire across space and time, is even more apparent in Siri Stensberg’s From the Smoke, For the Birds. Filmed while driving through a dust and smoke storm in Eastern Washington in early fall, 2020, Stensberg’s piece is a visual and auditory echo of the “Fable of Tomorrow” that opens Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring. The video, which at first appears peaceful, quickly becomes filled with what is missing: no birds perch on the telephone lines, and the reason for their absence becomes clear as audio of a voicemail from Stensberg’s grandmother tells us about birds dying of smoke inhalation after fleeing a fire. Stensberg explains that the video and layered vocals create space for viewers to “mourn the wildlife and ecosystems lost in forest fires of the Pacific Northwest.” Her piece also asks us to linger on the various ways, both immediately perceptible and not, that fire lingers in our lives.

Two additional pieces similarly turn to the non-human to illuminate fire’s ubiquity. Julie Mortimer’s Crow Memories brings to life the ghostly presence that defines Stensberg’s video, demanding that we shift our perspective from human to bird to experience wildfire and its effects. The misty air that dominates public imaginations of the Pacific Northwest is present on the edges of Mortimer’s watercolor. But this moisture gives way to dirty smoke in the painting’s center, such that the titular crow must turn its head to breathe. Stensberg’s video asks us to live in a world in which the birds have fled, or died. Mortimer’s work, on the other hand, tasks us with inhabiting a moment of captivity during which the crow attempts–and perhaps fails–to find the air to escape. The crow, a powerful cultural symbol of both death and the future, is here caught between the two in a landscape that similarly hovers between one version of itself and another.

If Mortimer’s crow is trapped in the moment of, Asante Riverwind’s bluebird thrives in the time after. Mountain Bluebird and Waldo Wilderness is inspired by Riverwind’s experience of the 1996 Wheeler Point Fire in Eastern and Central Oregon, which he himself fought to save structures and forest for five brutal days. Like the crow, Riverwind struggled to breathe the smoke and see through the air that enveloped him. But as a longtime resident of the area trained as a USFS sawyer and firefighter, he remained to experience the aftermath of the fire. As he explains, the bluebird is a “resilient species well adapted to fire ecology,” and his particular bluebird, thriving brightly amongst the snags and debris, reminds us that “life is truly resilient, as are we all.” His painting visually declares that blue skies, like bluebirds, are also part of the fire cycles of our region.

Finally, Mary Vanek Smith’s painting provides us with yet another perspective of fire and its ubiquity–this time a highly emotional one. Sky on Fire takes, as its subject matter, the presence of active fire. But rather than menace or destruction, Smith’s oil painting evokes beauty and tranquility. Its brilliant orange imagery and symmetry foster a sense of calm, and the foregrounded fence suggests a certain safety from the wildness of Ojala’s red dreams. Indeed, the painting could easily be one of a stunning Western sunrise; as Smith explains, the painting’s “beautiful natural display” stands in for “hundreds of thousands of acres of forest being burned.” The painting thus cleverly captures the cognitive, emotional, and affective dissonance of finding beauty in terror, and locating a new tomorrow in the fires of today.

The Online Exhibition Ground Truths, presented by lab in conjunction with Prichard Art Gallery opened in April 2023. Contextualizing this exhibit, further considerations of this collection were contributed by Confluence Lab member Erin James. "Ubiquitious Fire" is part I of her response.


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