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  • Sightlines "Just Futures"

    Sightlines returns to one of Fuel Loading’s central insights: that fuels build up “not just via ecological accumulation, but also via social tradition and routine.” Sightlines suggests that our ecologies and societies may be so deeply and complexly intertwined that only art can disentangle them and help us see the distinct threads, and their intersections, more accurately. Recognizing that we’re all implicated in the buildup of these social fuels, how might we form new partnerships for justice? What new collaborations might be fertilized in the ashes of wildfires? How does resilience feel, and what practices and modalities—from mapmaking to performance art—might help nurture it? Does justice require a new suite of emotions to kindle and fuel it, and if so, what might that suite include? A sense of humor can be a kind of lifesaving device, a kind of fire shelter for the heart. As the wildland-urban interface (WUI) takes center stage in larger conflagrations, irony and dark humor can remind us of the incongruities in our attempts to integrate prevention into communities. Gerard Sarnat’s ironic treatment of a poorly-attended online fire safety session for residents of the City of Beverly Hills suggests the difficulty of reaching even privileged communities. Sarnat’s alliteration is harsh—hard-hitting home-hardening—but it uses that attention-getting craft technique to alert us to class-based injustice. The poem is structured like an interlocking toolkit, with line lengths that could be assembled like puzzle pieces. The lines of verse mirror the Zoom screenshot’s blocky text, which (if we read it “right”) is red to green, left to right, implying a tidy, simple building block style of home protection that eludes the randomness of fire’s impacts. Anyone who’s seen its impacts will have noticed the way fire jumps around, skipping some structures entirely while demolishing others. Like Kehoe’s small animal shelters, Sarnat’s work questions which protective tools are available to which kinds of animals. Sarnat notes a moment of perhaps unintentional humor—the meeting host asking if there are “any burning questions.” Intentional or not, this gestures toward the multitude of ways that fire rhetoric permeates everyday discourse, shaping material practices alongside attitudes about fire. The audience member’s question about whether large animals are evacuated to “Cow Palace,” a former livestock pavilion converted to an indoor sports arena, warns of a potentially unhealthy use of humor: as a deflection or self-protective mechanism, a way to avoid grappling with the seriousness of wildfire risk. left: Gerard Sarnat’s zoom screen capture, right: from Doug Tolman and Alec Bang's Response and Responsibilty Doug Tolman and Alec Bang take direct aim at colonialism, reckoning with injustice at both personal and broader scales. Their short film opens with Bang eating a sandwich and seeming oblivious to his surroundings: the empty place setting across the table, the barbed wire fence to his right. The camera cuts to a scene in which two people roll a bundle of barbed wire (which the artists describe in their statement as “a tool of bifurcation and colonization”) down a hill like a giant tumbleweed. We get a glimpse of them wrapping the table in the wire before cutting to a black screen, when the familiar crackling sound of fire consuming wood reveals that they’ve set the wrapped table ablaze. The artists describe this work as a performative response to an especially large wildfire in their region as well as “a response to the barbed wire that colonized the West, and a responsibility as settler-descendants to find our roles in unsettling.” What’s left of the table is threadbare, barely holding together. A film still looks alarmingly as though Bang is about to be, or has just been, burned over by the flames to his right, conjuring memories of activists using self-immolation to make their points. Sitting face to face with fire, engulfed in smoke and breathing its toxicity in close proximity to the burning table, Bang forces viewers to bear witness and to feel complicit alongside him. Tolman and Bang find inspiration in the concept of serotiny, which they visualize via a family heirloom: a maul with its sharp edge embedded in a conifer, which was cut down after a prescribed burn in Tolman’s home region. Serotiny strikes me as a kind of performative land acknowledgment that recognizes colonial legacies and invites reflection on what reconciliation might look like, both in terms of fire management—recentering Indigenous burn practices and enabling serotiny—and in terms of social justice as well. Megan Davis’s work gives voice and vision to a community trying, collectively, to process the Almeda Fire’s impacts. Davis and other members of the Confluence Lab Stories of Fire team partnered with Coalición Fortaleza and Our Family Farms to host a workshop in 2022. Lab members brought art supplies and a simple prompt: participants were asked to map their visions for a resilient future. Some teams braided yarn to signify their interwoven community; others created a door using layered paper, signaling a sense of welcome. For Davis, an experienced graphic designer, rendering hand-made images with a professional, design aesthetic allows her to create “unified digital designs” that are impactful and versatile. Working closely with community members to ensure integrity of vision, Davis’s creation of shareable files results in both distinctive artifacts unique to this community, this fire—artifacts that can be posted publicly to amplify community members’ voices—as well as templates that can be repurposed elsewhere. My favorite is an image of a large wave about to crash and overwhelm a tiny sand castle in the corner of the frame. But this impending destruction is not something to be feared. Rather, a small caption reads: “May our needs propel us to break and rebuild the very systems that left us in need in the first place.” This mantra, or prayer, bears repeating. Some structures and systems need to be “burned down” so they can be rebuilt with justice at the center. For settlers, recognizing complicity with land theft, displacement, and repression of Indigenous burning practices is essential. As Indigenous fire practitioners have always known, fire is not necessarily destructive. Fire also cleanses, as Lab member Isabel Marlens reports in her essay “Fire Lines.” Fire’s ashes are seedbeds for necessary new growth. Like a wildfire, art can be a mechanism for “burning down” systems of injustice, clearing space for better futures and providing the seeds to grow toward them. Pyro Postcards exemplifies this creative destruction. Schlickman and Milligan repurpose Smokey’s neoliberal paternalism (“Only You…”) for decolonial ends in a postcard showing California’s tribal borders that implicates viewers in justice, captioned: “Only You Can Decolonize.” Another reads, in bold, all-capped, block letters, “LAND BACK.” Their “Right to Burn Fire Service” postcard speaks to a future where Indigenous burning practices are upheld as a valuable right as well as an ecological good. As we continue to make the future now, moment by moment, day by day, fire season by fire season, we’d do well to find more ways to invite, center, and amplify Indigenous fire knowledge. As a writer, I had hoped Sightlines would help me articulate a sort of conclusion to our three-part exhibition series. It didn’t. Instead, Sightlines leaves me feeling productively unsettled. These artists showcase the power of art to generate visions of futures that will “stick in your mind” for some time, and I’m left with wildly dissonant affective orientations to fire, with no single end game, no clear future, to pin my hopes on. But this lack of resolution doesn’t have to be scary. As Sasha Michelle White puts it, each “wound is an opening,” an opportunity to see the world more clearly and to rebuild it with new insights, better tools, and sharpened vision. It’s true that the future is an open question. But it’s equally true, as Sonia Sobrino Ralston reminds us, that “the future is always in the present.” Our vision of what comes next may be patchy, but these artists remind us that isn’t a bad thing. A patchy forest can be a sign of a healthy ecosystem, one where fires have been able to do what they’re meant to do: produce a messy mosaic and a resilient natural landscape. Perhaps human-led resilience efforts might be patchy in this positive sense, as we feel our way forward, toward murky but more just fire futures. ​ further considerations contributed by Sightlines Juror Jennifer Ladino, February 2024

  • Sightlines "When the Smoke Clears"

    Sightlines challenges artists to envision what happens when the smoke clears and we are confronted with fire’s impacts on human bodies, landscapes, and the built environment. The exhibition bears witness to these impacts, sparking a range of emotions about what becomes visible, and felt, when the flames are extinguished. What emotions are mirrored back to us in the eyes of wildland firefighters and others facing fire’s front lines? What pressures do we put on younger generations to both symbolize and create a better future? Who and what survives, and might even thrive, in fiery futures? Sightlines artists invite us to learn lessons from fire that might shape not just how we respond to it but also how we anticipate and prepare for it, how we work with fire as an agential partner in a shifting and shared world. ​ Part of a hotshot crew, Jackie Barry took a camera into the field in 2020 to film their fellow crew members. The result is an intimate set of images that challenge us to reckon with, perhaps to justify, what firefighters do: the labor, the risk, and the “burnout.” Many people are aware that firefighters are underpaid and overworked, and that romantic visions of firefighters as akin to war heroes can encourage us to put them in harm’s way unnecessarily. But beyond stereotypical images of urban firefighters—with their red trucks, their fire stations, the highly visible structure fires they extinguish—what is life like when the backcountry is your workplace, when wildland firefighting is your job? Barry’s position as hotshot crew member enabled them to catch their coworkers in casual moments and expose the gritty realism of a very hard job. In Medio Fire, a cluster of hotshots gaze across a valley at smoke on the ridge opposite them. What seems like repose is both warranted (they work excruciatingly long days, sleep on the hard ground, and carry extremely heavy packs) and also probably not repose at all; most likely they’re analyzing fire behavior and strategizing for the next day’s work. This perspective contrasts with the close-ups of the “boys” in Boys in Truck, an image that makes me curious to hear what they’re talking about right then, and to understand more about their day-to-day work lives. Too often we only see fire from afar, on a distant ridge or not at all—a far-off flame front, or billowing smoke columns, or orange skies in a photo next to an alarming headline. Barry’s photographs make fire personal, not by showing flames but by showing us what human bodies that work with fire look and feel like. I feel challenged by Cole’s close-up stare, and by his slightly downturned lips: Is this worth it? Are you asking too much of us? And what does his unflinching look juxtaposed against a field of sunflowers begin to tell us about this traditionally masculine workplace? What becomes visible when we focus on the people who work in and with fire are questions of justice, then, at root. Allison McClay’s Olallie Burns echoes Medio Fire in that it frames a distant fire from the perspective of a human—and, in McClay’s image, companion animals. Facing fire alongside these figures, we viewers are looking out with them on a landscape that is burning, has burned, will burn. Here we see the familiar red skies and what looks like a lake reflecting that umber hue. What I find most fascinating about this image—aside from the dogs, who outnumber and look up to the human figure—is the hands on hips stance. This can signal frustration, bemusement, determination, or anger. Without a facial expression, it’s hard to tell. But the piece is powerful for the way it shifts attention from figures to background, asking us to reflect on what we see and feel looking across this landscape with this triad of animals in the foreground. As McClay puts it in her artist’s statement, her work implores us to reconsider “what a healthy relationship to destruction and to existential doom could look like.” In Sucia Saves Us McClay recalibrates doomism toward hope. Gently winding tree limbs cradle a harmonious multi-species community of ravens, white-tailed deer, and human children, in a magical realist mood that suggests salvation. Pushing back against depictions of children as emblems of the future or requisite symbols for hope, though, it is Sucia—an island in the San Juans—that “saves us” here. As the Pacific Northwest adapts to longer and more intense fire seasons, McClay’s paintings are refreshing in their indication that “alarm” is only one affective attunement, even when fire is always in the background. Returning us to central tensions in Ground Truths—between mourning and renewal, death and regeneration, destruction and new growth—Andreas Rutkauskas’s Silent Witnesses series refuses to resolve them. Instead, these photographs expertly show how fire’s power is both destructive and restorative, and prompt reflection about what roles humans should play, as witnesses and stewards, in capturing, rerouting, or simply admiring what Ruskauskas describes in his artist’s statement as “fire’s power to sculpt the land.” Rutkauskas’s photographs get at this question, in part, by re-centering plant agencies, using an outdoor strobe light to illuminate what he rightly considers valuable “members of a community.” Rutkauskas’s framing disrupts the common anthropocentric perspective of looking down and out across a burned-over area by positioning a dried-out shrub in the foreground. What first appear to be almost black-and-white shots quickly take on multiple dimensions of color and texture. White tufts of dandelions pop against a blackened forest. Ponderosas are marked by vibrant orange splotches beneath the bark, which shine neon against charred trunks and signal the emergence of new layers of growth. In all three images, the foreground glows, attracting my eye and heart to brightness rather than the threatening sense of dread or the grief that often overwhelms us when confronted with destruction. One thing that becomes visible, and felt, from this vantage point is a sense of near-miss relief: the feeling that things could have been even worse. But what strikes me most is the bright green understory, which brings a spirit of resilience, even joy, to the darkness. Katie Kehoe’s Wildfire Shelters for Small Animals operates in a similarly dissonant mode. Small animals often imply cuteness or play, but fire shelters are deadly serious. Trained firefighters practice deploying shelters very quickly, with the knowledge that they are last resorts for survival, to be used only when a flame front is overtaking the crew—in other words, when death is imminent. These triangular shelters are arranged so that their tips touch in a kind of wheel, conjuring a “circling the wagons” sense of protection. But who is included in the circle, and who is the implied enemy? How do we protect not only ourselves, but other animals as well, from destruction? What “survival architecture,” to cite Kehoe’s provocative phrase, is required for our hearts? Kehoe’s art asks what “lifesaving devices” we need to develop to survive and perhaps even thrive in uncertain fire futures. They also beg a more basic question: who is the “we”? Why should large mammals—humans in particular—get priority for survival? Kehoe’s shelters, like Pyro Postcard’s “babes in the woods” avoid a sentimental Bambi-ism but nevertheless tap into a profound and common human concern for “small animals,” harnessing that concern for fire awareness. Ultimately, Kehoe’s project, like all of the work in Sightlines, confronts us with the harsh material realities and the “survival architecture” we must create in the face of extreme conditions—individual wildfires, changing fire regimes, and, more broadly, the climate crisis. further considerations contributed by Sightlines Juror Jennifer Ladino, February 2024

  • Sightlines "The Future is Patchy"

    Sightlines, the third and final exhibition in our Stories of Fire series, builds on the themes of Ground Truths and Fuel Loadings, adding new dimensions to art’s ability to represent “fire’s mercurial nature as well as the rich range of emotions that fire can produce.” Sightlines envisions what Pyro Postcards creators Emily Schlickman and Brett Milligan emphasize is a “multitude of futures”: some are “bleak. Some are exciting. Some are just fucking weird and stick in your mind.” Any of this multitude could come to fruition depending on how creatively we navigate the climate crisis, how honestly we reckon with injustice, and how successfully we learn to live with more fire. The Sightlines exhibition grapples with the reality that, as one of the more unsettling pieces in Pyro Postcards reads, “the future is patchy.” Like a serotinous cone opened by fire’s heat, Sightlines releases a range of aesthetic and affective “seeds”: new ways to visualize, reimagine, and, to cite Schlickman and Milligan’s artists’ statement, “feel [our] way into possible fiery futures and our potential role in making them.” Pyro Postcards, Schlickman and Brett Milligan With a palette of earthy colors that echo historical public lands promotional materials and PSAs, Pyro Postcards operates in unusual and sometimes startling affective registers. Some postcards invoke nostalgia for familiar images and aesthetics with playful reinvention of what we think we know; others traffic in more ominous tones that conjure but defamiliarize the dominant fear-and-dread mode of engaging with fire. On the playful end of this spectrum, the artists replace Smokey Bear and his individualistic “Only You” campaign with fresh nonhuman animal faces, shifting to a collective model of fire resilience led by more-than-human community members. (Vote for a new “pyrophilic mascot” here) A savvy squirrel named “Sooty” welcomes other “Pals” to help reseed after fires. Clothed in an official-looking uniform “Grazie the Goat” stands ready to chomp on flammable matter and reduce fire risk. A cougar crew boss with “Pyro” inscribed on their hard hat appears determined to take advantage of the perfect prescribed burn conditions. Like their human counterparts, these critters put safety first; woodpeckers and bobcats alike sport hard hats and Nomex. These “babes in the woods” are not passive victims; they have co-evolved with fire and can teach humans how to live with it. Other postcards take more serious turns: a promotional postcard featuring Giant Sequoia offers tourists the chance to see “earth’s largest dead trees,” and one postcard that seems to be burning from the top down simply warns: “We’re Fucked.” Overall, Pyro Postcards invokes a kind of affective dissonance, asking us to sit with uncomfortable, conflicting, non-cathartic emotions about fire and to harness that dissonance for justice. Kasia Ozga's RE_MOVE N.22 & N.24 Kasia Ozga also recognizes the mixed feelings about fire that so many of us carry. In her artist’s statement, Ozga describes being struck by wonder when confronted with the scale of Pacific Northwest forests, where trees dwarf and humble us, reminding us that we’re a tiny part of a vast ecosystem. At the same time, Ozga feels “exhaustion from the intense thick smoke that blankets the region when forest fires are in abundance,” a common embodied reaction to what Lisa Cristinzo, in her artist’s statement for Fuel Loading, calls “the build up, the burn, and the burn out.” Yet Ozga’s work brings me from suffocation to relief and a kind of release. RE_MOVE N.22 draws the eye upward from root system to canopy, from a rich soil-like red clay, to wispy smoke-like tendrils. The texture of the hand-made paper conjures the crispness of burned bark. The perspective is road-like, two throughlines coming closer together, gradually, to simulate motion. A cleverly placed set of binoculars offers itself up as a tool for sharper vision. I feel poised to turn right, with the lines, and face what’s around the corner—our always invisible future. RE_MOVE N.24 is even more viscerally inspiring, with a beating heart at its center, and tree-like branches that are also lung-like, signaling for us to breathe deeply, spread our arms, and trust the ways that new growth post-fire will re-oxygenate our bodies and sustain our lives. Forests as Data Governance, part of Sonia Sobrino Ralston’s more expansive Uncommon Knowledge project, also moves viewers, but taking a digital rather than an organic approach. Ralston’s project responds to a 2022 fire that threatened Google’s first hyperscale data center in The Dalles, Oregon, prompting the use of LIDAR scans to envision and anticipate future threats to digital infrastructure. Ralston adds forests to these pointlouds of data at the site to show how “plants become critical infrastructure, a form of long-term information storage” that requires protection and stewardship. Converting a forest into binary code, Ralston illuminates the motion, beauty, and agency that are easy to miss in more mundane representations of tree life. By turning plants themselves into infrastructure, Ralston highlights their vulnerability as well as their essential role in planning for a healthy future. Like Ozga’s, this work guides our vision in multiple directions: upward, to migratory birds and tree canopies, and downward, by way of an elegantly twirling conifer, to the intricate and enormous root systems that anchor individual trees in place, reminding us there’s often more going on below ground than what we can see above. Real forests are messy places; in Ralston’s deft hands, digital forests become uncanny pixelated versions of the real thing, both defamiliarizing our relationship to the material world and introducing us to magical new materialities, in which trees are information-rich, illuminated, and illuminating. left: from Sonia Sobrino Ralston's Forests as Data Governance. right: from Miriam Morrill's Pyrosketchology At the other end of the representational spectrum from binary code, Miriam Morrill uses analog methods to bring the fire environment to life via a practice she calls pyrosketchology: a unique kind of nature journaling that builds hand-on awareness of fire by using sketching “to develop better observation skills, awareness, and understanding of the natural world.” Pyrosketchology uses simple materials—drawing tools, sketchbooks, human hands—to reveal the complexities of what Morrill calls the fire environment, which includes the traditional components of the fire triangle along with “fire seasons, ignitions, mitigation, effects, and regimes.” Available for free online, the full Pyrosketchology book includes guided activities to invite us into a more intimate relationship with the fire environment—a relationship founded on simultaneously apprehending fire’s visual, emotional, and scientific dimensions. Two activities featured on our site include one for measuring flammability by way of a leaf burn test and another for estimating tree cover in a forest by isolating and sketching a representative section of the canopy. Through generative prompts like these, Morrill’s pyrosketchology renders science and art deeply embodied, intertwined practices and inspires us to be curious as both citizen scientists and citizen artists. Whether through the white spaces on a page, the distance between pixels, the layers of handmade paper, or the tensions between nostalgic, familiar aesthetics and ironic, playful reinventions of them, the art in Sightlines complicates well-worn emotional ruts and opens up other ways of feeling about, and with, fire—including those that are exciting and just fucking weird. Typically, fire feelings are reduced to variants of fear and sadness, and for valid reasons: when apocalyptic orange skies dominate news headlines, our anxieties are stoked; when catastrophic destruction and loss of life result from unfightable wildfires, we grieve. Yet to focus only on fear and sadness oversimplifies the range and complexity of our feelings about fire and can have negative impacts on management: a frightened public might be more prone to support total suppression and to shun the prescribed burning that is essential for healthy fire management. Sightlines encourages a more expansive affective repertoire as we resee and reconsider our “patchy” fire futures.

  • 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.

  • Loads and Ladders

    Confluence Lab Member Sasha Michelle White's considerations on catalyzing the "Fire Humanities" were recently promoted through the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network. "reckoning with landscape fire means reckoning with cultural fuels as well as ecological ones" Read more HERE!

  • 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. ​

  • Afire at the Kenworthy

    followed by a discussion with the Confluence Lab “Like all of Petzold’s recent pictures, “Afire” draws you in confidently and prepares its knockout emotional punch with scrupulousness and a vivid sense of surprise.” — RogerEbert.com The Confluence Lab is pleased to sponsor the film Afire showing at the Kenworthy Performing Arts Center in Downtown Moscow, Idaho. A group of friends in a holiday home by the Baltic Sea where emotions run high as the parched forest around them catches fire. A riveting look at complicated relationships, the well-acted Afire finds Christian Petzold working in an arguably lighter but still notably ambitious vein. The Confluence Lab invites members of the Palouse community to a conversation about Afire after the screening on Sunday at 4 PM. As we face longer, more intense fire seasons in the West and elsewhere, communities like ours need to develop resilience and psychological preparedness. In this creative, interactive workshop, we’ll discuss Afire, share personal stories and feelings about fire, and strategize about creating a more sustainable and resilient future in our community.

  • Ground Truths: "The Wound is an Opening"

    When I look at Enid Smith-Becker’s Witness, I initially see a scene of devastation. Columns of red interrupt an otherwise peaceful scene in the forest, burning upwards as they lay waste to the trees and understory. The stark vertical lines of flames literally chop the image up into before and after, or, rather, what once was/is and what will be. But, the longer that I look at this painting, the more diplopic, or double-sighted, it becomes. A second scene emerges, in which the columns of fire are not incinerating trees, but held within them. This interpretation foregrounds the idea of serotiny, a term associated with cone-bearing trees such as many species of pine, spruce, and sequoia that depend upon a blast of heat to trigger the release of their seeds. The longer that I look at Witness, the more clearly that I see two fires: one angry and devastating and another the first step in regeneration. I also see two sets of trees, respectively: one in the moment of collapse and another brimming with energy, potential, and life. The double-nature of Witness brings to life for me a line in the poem that accompanies Sasha Michelle White’s The Containment: “the wound is an opening.” The wound in the poem refers to delivery mechanisms in and of the body by which we can receive treatment and begin to heal. But it also strikes me as a powerful prescription for understanding the fire-prone and -affected landscapes of the twenty-first-century Pacific Northwest, or appreciating the two sets of trees that we see in Witness. Our region is full of wounds, of ruined shells in the forest that testify to fires that are too hot and too big. But these “wounds” are also openings of various kinds. Some of these openings are literal, in that many plants in our region need fire to open up to survive and thrive. Still other openings are figurative, in that they assert alternative burning practices and fire regimes that understand and use fire as a tool of life rather than one of only violence and annihilation. (Hence, also, the refrain that runs through White’s poem: “whose lands are you on?”) Her work encourages us to think of not only the burn, but also the salve that follows. Several contributors to Ground Truths emphasize the violence of today’s wildfires and the wounds they cause. See, for example, Justin Webb’s photographs of the aftermath of the 2015 Soda Fire. The two trees that dominate Skeletons of Soda Fire 1 and 2 remain, six years after the event, as evidence of what we have lost. As Webb writes in his contributor’s note, his photographs are inspired by the experience of “seeing a landscape that I grew up exploring stripped of its already limited plant life.” The stark black and whiteness of Webb’s arboreal photos revise Ansel Adams’ iconic images of National Parks for the Pyrocene era. Webb swaps Adams’ wild and abundant sublime for the sublime of what is now absent and the wrecks that remain. See, too, the trees that similarly haunt the backgrounds of Jean Arnold’s paintings of what is left in Malden, Washington. In September 2020, the Babb Road Fire burned 15,000 acres and over two hundred buildings–including 67 homes–in a few hours. The five paintings in Arnold’s Malden series foreground this domestic devastation, documenting the exposed interiors of shattered houses with brutal clarity. Yet is the background that haunts me most in these images. Behind each set of ruins stands a set of trees that signals just how far the loss stretches. The trees in Malden 8: Shreds and Malden 5: Phase Change, in particular, remind me that it is not only our homes that are disappearing, but the homes (and lives) of countless other species with which we share this region. The ghost of what once also lingers in Liz Toohey-Wise’s striking Billboard, which anticipated the White Rock Lake Fire in 2022. Be quick, the billboard says to us with its tongue in its cheek; see this landscape while you can, as it won’t be here long. ​ Other contributions to Ground Truths function at a different scale of time or engage alternative cultural practices to help us see wounds as the first step in healing and, often, a necessary phase in life. This perspective is perhaps loudest in the powders, salves, and tinctures of White’s The Containment–part of her larger project FIRST-AID KIT FOR THE FIRE-PRONE. Featuring medicines and dyes she made from fire-adapted plants of the southern Willamette Valley and The Nature Conservancy’s Sycan Marsh Preserve such as arnica, snowbrush ceanothus, and St John’s wort, White’s kit draws our attention how we might use plants that thrive with the recurring disturbance of fire to treat the illnesses and injuries that fire can cause. As she explains, her kit emphasizes “fire, tending, and healing,” particularly those central to Indigenous fire regimes that are not based solely on suppression, to present us a ground truth that “promotes a pro-active, cross-cultural attending to our fire-prone landscapes.” The work of Megan Hatch is similarly interested in healing and renewal. A queer, multidisciplinary artist from Portland, Hatch began her project in the summer of 2020 and took inspiration from the interconnections between George Floyd’s murder, the COVID-19 pandemic, and what was, at the time, Oregon’s worst-ever wildfire season. Her photographs potently insist that we grapple with what is broken and how we might mend it, and each diptych tasks us with viewing, simultaneously, images of death and images of life. A thin golden line inspired by the Japanese art of kintsugi, by which broken pottery is mended with gold, yokes together each pair of images. Hatch explains that kintsugi vessels “hold our hurt and our hope,” and, similarly, her images tell us that “there is healing to be found in holding multiple truths in our awareness at the same time.” I see this hurt and hope strongly almost there – losing ground, which binds together an enticing forest path with stark snags. Which came first, the photographs ask: the life or the death? Can we truly have one without the other? And what binds them together? Several years ago, when I started to study literary representations of fire, I had a conversation with a fire ecologist friend about the evolution of fire regimes in my current home state of Idaho. She told me that prior to 1900, fires annually burned at least two million acres in the state. These fires had a different texture to the big, hot fires that we see today, she explained; the historical fires burned mostly lower elevation forests and rangelands, were smaller and more numerous, and largely were ignited by lightning or indigenous fire practices. I was surprised to learn that post-Big Burn federal suppression policies have produced a fire deficit–my friend told me that we actually need more fire in our region, just fire of a different kind. She was very clear on this issue: no fire is not the answer, and we must learn to see fire not as bad but part of the land’s personality. Laura Aloha-Young’s work and artistic process crisply captures the swirl of emotions that followed this conversation. Attempting to “provide evidence of the intricacies of regeneration, of life in the forest,” her pieces begin with photos that she takes of fire landscapes that “reveal the marks of fire itself: lichen, mycology, growth, decay.” I clearly see the tension between growth and decay in her work and the ways that it mixes media and species to grapple with the emotional complexity of fire. Much like Becker-Smith’s Witness, I initially see a scene of devastation when I look at Two Pines Down (after the fire)--the dark colors and jagged lines return me to the melancholy of Webb’s skeletons, and the hazy shapes that surround the lines heighten the ghostliness of the image. But when I look again, I see that these hazy shapes are alive. They are not ghosts of what we have lost, but fungal and vegetal assemblages in the process of emergence. The image is thus one of simultaneous wound and opening, past and future. Its depiction of post-fire blossoming–and the revelation of this meaning as late-maturing, like serotiny–reminds us that our relationship with fire must be complicated and double-sighted. It also promises that in our search of the material evidence that remains after the flames burn out, and the layers of meaning that we find there, we may access a new ground truth of acceptance, regrowth, and fortitude. 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. "The Wound is an Opening" is part III of her response.

  • Ground Truths: "Boots on the Ground"

    Boots on the ground: in many ways this is a clichéd phrase that, with its evocation of military action, brings to mind images of war, soldiers, defense, and attack. As such, it fits a popular narrative of fire in the twenty-first-century Pacific Northwest as an adversary that we must defeat–an evil presence escaping out of the woods that demands active fighting. The complete story of fire in our region is, of course, much more complicated: modern wildfire is both too hot and too fast, seeded as it is by decades of the fuel loading that has resulted from federal- and state-supported suppression policies, and a necessary part of the lifecycle of many of the region’s ecosystems. Having boots on the ground in our contemporary firescape is thus also much more complicated than the military connotations of the phrase suggest. As many of the contributions to Ground Truths attest, being in the thick of things–or grappling with fire from within, as opposed to witnessing it from afar–is essential to understanding not only what fire is today, but what it means to the various communities that live with it in our region. Kate Lund’s contributions to Ground Truths began when she was in fire: while studying as an art student, Lund spent eight summers working as a wildland firefighter with the United States Forest Service (USFS). As she explains, she used firefighting to “fuel” her artistic practice, collecting “images, objects, and sensations over the course of each summer in the landscape.” That collection is on vivid display in Are You Sure We are Going the Right Way, Downdraft and Microburst–gestural renderings and sculptures that not only evoke her experiences of fire operations but carry within them remnants of the urgency and distress of being in the field. Microburst, for example, makes use of expired and cast-off tents and outdoor firefighting equipment to conjure the way that wind moves during a fire. Fencing, nylon, and tent poles hang together to situate the viewer within the actual wildfire’s wind–“short, sharp bursts of air strong enough to mow down 200 foot-tall trees in a matter of seconds.” The work of David Paul Bayles and Frederick J. Swanson similarly originates in situ. A western Oregon photographer and a retired Research Geologist with the USFS’s Pacific Northwest Research Station, respectively, Bayles and Swanson have made dozens of site visits over two and a half years to the landscape blackened by the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire to better understand wildfire and its effects on our region. As they eloquently explain, “seeking truth involves boots on the ground while looking for clues in the clouds,” as “that’s what trees do.” Bayles and Swanson use a variety of scientific and artistic methodologies to try on a tree’s perspective, working together to combine the photographer’s eye for form and color with the scientists’ focus on biological and physical processes. Their meditative treeness, or quiet on-the-groundness, is clear in the two styles of photographic work that feature in their Ground Truths contributions: Typologies (groups of images of single subjects) and Chronosequences (photographs that track change over time). “Truth may be lodged in the tread of our boots,” they note–a sentiment made visual in the rootedness with which we must observe the treetops in their Typologies: Canopy series and its observations of the forest’s resilience. The Keefe family shows us the intergenerational ramifications of fire field work. As their artist’s statement explains, the Keefes “study fire from a variety of disciplines and perspectives”: Rob as Director of the University of Idaho Experimental Forest (UIEF), Maggie as a watercolor painter, and their nine-year-old daughter Alice as a collager. Maggie’s paintings pull directly from Rob’s work in the UIEF, capturing the results of prescribed burns that prepare the site for regeneration and low-intensity fires that burn the understory to reduce grass and shrub fuels. The prescriptive titles of Upper Hatter Rx and West of Cabin Rx signal the tone and intent of these paintings; the Keefes explain that “prescribed fire is one of our most effective tools for reducing wildfire in the Pacific Northwest,” and these paintings “show the use of good fire in forests on the Palouse Range.” We see this “goodness easily in the latter painting, which depicts a fire manager walking calmly amongst a stand of healthy trees and signals the harmonious relationship of the prescribed burn and landscape via the fuzzy border between flame and grass. Alice also captures the “goodness” of prescribed burns in her collage–a bright and cheerful work that illustrates what this fire means “to her soul” as she remembers “seeing the flames for myself disappear as they burn down the pile.” Her collage, evoking the safe and the domestic in its doily base, offers us the same challenge as her mother’s paintings: what if we understood fire to be not “wild” and destructive, but peaceful and familiar? Finally, work from two field schools once again highlights the power of being boots on the ground. Members of the Overlook Field School, funded by the Fuller Initiative for Productive Landscapes, spent five weeks in the summer of 2021 visiting post-fire sites in the Willamette National Forest, most of which had burned within the past thirty years. Their focus was on “recovery,” which they explain as “analogous to resilience, restoration, and regeneration . . . a return to a previous state–perhaps a new normal.” The temporary landscape installations recorded in their Recovery booklet track not only these forest explorations but also the exceptional conditions of their field work, including the record heat wave of their first day of field school and the wildfires that dominated the final design stage. Their work is thus triply-site-specific, in that it studies wildfire in place, takes inspiration from the environment in which it is produced, and demands that exhibit visitors, too, inhabit this specific location. Similarly, the collaboration between Sophia Hatzikos and the students of the Oregon Episcopal School enrolled in the I.M.P.A.C.T. (innovate/make/act/collaborate/tinker) course activates situated public art to generate new knowledge about climate change and the wildland firefighting industry. Inspired by site visits to the Lake Oswego Gallery without Walls, particularly the nearby tall trees and the next door firehouse, the students repurposed fire hoses originally used in wildfire suppression during 2020 and 2021, now destined for the landfill, to create Lift, Coil, Zip. The three hose towers, which cleverly summon visual and formal connections to tree rings and silver birches, intertangle contemporary forests in the Pacific Northwest and the fire suppression efforts that have created and maintained them. They ask: how much does our experience of the region’s forests rely upon the wildfire-fighting industry and its policies of suppression? Where does hose end and tree begin? And what might the landscape look like in the absence of either? 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. "Boots on the Ground" is part II of her response.

  • 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. 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.

  • Mapping Fire Recovery in Oregon's Rogue Valley

    In November 2022 the Confluence Lab partnered with Coalicion Fortaleza and Our Family Farms to lead a fire resiliency and map-making community workshop in Oregon’s Rogue Valley. The 2020 Almeda Fire impacted the Rogue Valley/Jackson County area profoundly, and local nonprofit organizers invited a Confluence team to the area for an afternoon of inter-organizational reflection, information sharing, and map making. The resulting maps of organizations and county resources will be completed and digitized by a Confluence graphic designer at the University of Idaho and given back to local Rogue Valley organizations to help with their future fire resiliency planning and messaging. ​ Read more news from this event.

  • Dilshani Sarathchandra and Kristin Haltinner featured on Vandal Theory Podcast, Episode 5.2

    You can purchase their book published by University of Washington Press later this spring. Book Description: As wildfires rip across the western United States and sea levels rise along coastal cities from Louisiana to Alaska, some people nevertheless reject the mainstream scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. What leads people to doubt or outright denial? What leads skeptics to change their minds? Drawing from a rich collection of interviews and surveys with self-identified climate change skeptics (and some former ones), sociologists Kristin Haltinner and Dilshani Sarathchandra delve into the underlying dynamics of climate skepticism in the United States. In probing how ideas about science, religion, politics, and media affect perceptions of climate change, they find a far greater diversity of attitudes and beliefs than one might expect—including some pro-environmental views. With this nuanced understanding of climate change skepticism, Inside the World of Climate Change Skeptics offers much-needed insights on improving communication in ways that can move us toward a better future while advancing environmental policies with widespread political support.

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