The Fresno Art Museum has been a well loved fixture in my community for many years, offering multiple exhibits annually and many opportunities for special events and education. The last couple of years, several friends and I have made a point to take in each changing exhibit whether it be sculpture, painting, photography, fiber arts or mixed media. A few hours in the museum followed by a fun lunch is a welcome respite to our normal daily activities.
One of the spring exhibits–Rethinking Fire–really struck a chord with me. It was not only beautiful to look at but also timely and thought-provoking in this era of increasing devastation to California by wildfires.
Multi-media artist Bryan David Griffith came to the pursuit of art full-time after an engineering education and a successful career with an international management consulting firm. He lives and works in the Arizona mountain town of Flagstaff, Arizona. In 2014, after the Slide Fire threatened his home and studio he was invited to study wildfire with scientists from the Southwest Fire Science Consortium and join a project entitled Fires of Change, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.
In his own words from his Artist Statement for the exhibit Bryan tells us “In Western culture we traditionally view dualities–light and darkness, life and death, forest and fire–as opposing forces in an epic struggle of good vs. evil. We see ourselves as fighting nobly to preserve life and subdue death by taming nature to prevent unpredictable disasters like wildfires.”
Bryan’s art takes the position that these forces are not opposed but rather part of a continuous cycle. He proposes that by keeping fire out of the forest we have disrupted this natural cycle of life and his work seeks to provoke questions; finding solutions we can all work together to achieve.
The works Broken Equilibrium and Reconstruction, both from 2015 form the centerpiece of the exhibit.
Broken Equilibrium portrays both the dense overgrowth of today’s forest and the destruction wrought by today’s wildfires. The trees on the right, also seen below from another angle, came from the Observatory Mesa thinning project. The burned trees on the left of the spiral were salvaged from the Slide and Schultz fires.
You are invited to enter the sculpture and reflect upon man’s relationship with fire, with the broken natural spiral of life surrounding you.
A slightly different camera angle reveals Reconstruction in the spiral’s core. An old growth downed tree was sculpted by cutting and burning. It’s puzzle like form references in the artist’s words, “the works of scientists and land managers to piece together an understanding of history and restore climate resilience to forests before ecological disaster and human tragedy unfold.”
The smallest part of the exhibit can be seen in the background of the above pictures and was to me the most moving of the works displayed.
Each charred leaf in Requiem for Paradise, 2019, represents a life lost in the 2018 Camp Fire–the deadliest wildfire incident in California history in which the town of Paradise was literally burned to the ground.
The artist photographed smoky this scene in a forest near his home and printed the haunting image from film onto silk. The silk’s edge was burned and the small pile of charred remains placed below were collected from the scene where the photo was taken.
Rebirth was inspired by the regrowth of aspen trees in an area on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon which was severely burned in 2006. The natural life cycle of mixed conifer and aspen forests is that while dense conifers dominate the aspens, lacking sun, no longer thrive. When wildfire destroys the canopy and opens the ground to sun the aspens are quick to regrow from underground roots even though their parent trees have died. Conifers reestablish more slowly as so for a time the aspens dominate.
The aspen leaves in the piece are coated in encaustic beeswax and the cinders at the base are from the site of the fire. I love the way these leaves produced dancing shadows in the still and somewhat dim room.
The title of this work comes directly from a term firefighters use to fight wildfires by using fire. The piece alludes to the suppression of fire from 1910 until present. The forest life cycle is broken and unable to heal. The open space, created by cutting and burning this old growth timber, represents the loss of age old information carried by the hundreds of years old tree.
These art works were meant to make viewers stop and think about how modern culture views fire, attempts to manage forests outside their natural cycle and ultimately reaps the consequences. This is an exhibit you could stop in to see for a few minutes or spend several hours in thoughtful repose on the room’s bench, viewing from all angles and considering the artist’s intent. We hear about the most important issues of climate change and forest management almost every day from scientists and politicians–I was inspired by seeing these challenges through the eyes of an artist.
Please visit http://www.fresnoartmuseum.org for more information about the museum’s current exhibitions and newly reopened gift shop.