Rethinking Fire…a Fresno Art Museum exhibit

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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.

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Broken Equilibrium, 2015 and Reconstruction, 2015 both by Bryan David Griffith

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.

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You are invited to enter the sculpture and reflect upon man’s relationship with fire, with the broken natural spiral of life surrounding you.

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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.

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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.

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The Impermanence of Forests, 2017 by Bryan David Griffith

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.

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Rebirth, 2017 by Bryan David Griffith

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.

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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.

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Box & Burn, 2015 by Bryan David Griffith

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.

A walk in my woods…

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With the first snows of the winter in the forecast for the last week in November and our turkey dinner well settled,  my husband and I headed to the Sierras to do the last tasks to fortify our small cabin outside the south entrance to Yosemite National Park as much as possible for the winter. Unlike many of the cabins in Fish Camp we have central heat and  are able to spend a good bit of time there in the winter months but we must still prepare our deck for the snow slide off the roof, lay in a good supply of wood close in and, when at all possible, get up as much of the autumn leaf fall disposed of before it is covered by snow. The last is mostly to get a jump on clearing the ‘defensible 100 feet’ required by the fire folks once the warm, dry summer sets in. Note to Donald T: in case you are following my blog you can rest easy that we ARE raking our forest floor.

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Our area is prone to fall rainstorms which can produce flash flooding and our cabin happens to sit much lower than the road. Water rushing down the road is directed into a culvert and then into a big metal drainpipe which runs under our driveway and out into what is euphemistically called a ‘seasonal creek’ by real estate agents. The steep slope of our property away from the road then carries it down to an actual creek just below  the property. Last year obstructions in the pipe caused the water to back up in the culvert, jump the bank and virtually wash out our steep, curved, at that time dirt driveway. Fortunately a slight raise in the grade in front of our basement stopped the flow before we became an ark! And our seasonal creek seemed to be mysteriously creeping closer to the cabin…to that end we worked diligently this summer to clear both the culvert and the sub-driveway pipe. A neighbor with a backhoe pushed several years worth of downhill debris up to give us new and well defined culvert on the downhill side of the pipe so we could create a good path for the run-off. A fall afternoon’s worth of collecting rock from around the property and stacking it up resulted in what we have now dubbed El Pequeno Rio Armadillo–the Little Armadillo River, a nod to my husband’s childhood nickname. Having just had the first heavy rains of the fall I was anxious to see how our handiwork had fared and was pleased to see the banks held and the downhill flow of the rushing water was well within bounds of what we’d hoped for!

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Of course, we have a huge tree right in the middle of the flow–earth and stones hopefully stop the water from jumping the bank toward the house
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Looking down from the drain pipe
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Looking back ‘upstream’ from quite far below–the power of moving water from just one large storm has carved this perfect path

With snow on the ground since this visit, the threat of flood has diminished. However, with the spring snowmelt from the high Sierra we will again need to keep a close watch on where the Little Armadillo River wanders.

In the few years we have owned this vacation cabin, my husband’s work/travel schedule has been the determining factor of how much time we are able to spend in the mountains and with so much work to be done to make the 50 year old home habitable we really haven’t spent much mountain time actually having any fun. His 2018 mid-summer retirement has given us more freedom to enjoy the quiet and the beautiful vistas without feeling we need to be ‘getting something done’ every time we are there. With that in mind and Dave doing a little light raking (8 barrels worth) I thought it a perfect time to take a stroll and survey our small piece of the forest.

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I have purposefully left the exposure of these photos unedited. Our land is only about an acre and slopes sharply down from street level with a smallish flat area midway for parking in front of the cabin. Our views up toward the street are always in dappled shade from trees, both conifers and deciduous hardwoods. I will be forever in awe of the huge granite outcroppings and boulders.

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Just below street level 
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This monster is perched on our neighbor’s property high over the creek bed below our property
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Beautiful life decorates the boulders
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Looking uphill from the lowest point of our land
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Our only sunny spot is the meadow (or gully depending on my mood) visible from the back deck–happily inhabited by a great diversity of trees

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Our local utility company is actively trimming or clearing trees too close to power lines. We have several marked to be limbed up but but none marked for removal as this one on the property next to us.

Even in late November there is a lot of plant life to be seen. I am clueless on about 90% of  what is growing here but it is my goal to be able to identify most of what we have in the next few years. The top left photo is one of the manzanita varieties, I think–at least it is growing among a huge thicket of manzanita! In the spring they have small pinkish white flowers so I am not sure about the red blossom. I’ll take gladly take any guesses on the other three!

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I am cautiously proposing white fir on this very young tree. I am amazed at all seedlings we have, especially given the continuing Central California drought conditions–just another example of Mother Nature’s drive to keep her offspring going.

Tree felling required for the installation of larger water tanks just up the road from us resulted in great quantities of wood available for the water company’s customers. We have hauled logs down for various purposes and a neighbor cut up a half dozen nice ones for us to use as seating. Earlier in the year we arrived at the cabin one weekend to find a tree stump about 2 feet high and 48″ across neatly in place beside our wood pile. My husband had mentioned to a neighbor Gene G. that he need a stump on which to split logs and voila! one arrived via our go to heavy equipment neighbor Barry G. It is a fact that mountain people all look out for each other.

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A small ginkgo on the roadside shows its colors

Just across the road from us this wee waterfall has been running for weeks.

The seed pods are from the lily type plant below which I photographed in bloom in July.

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What tales this (cedar?) tree trunk has to tell…

Fish Camp lies a scant 50 miles north of Fresno just outside the southern gate to Yosemite National Park. At about 5200 feet in elevation and an hour’s drive away it is light years away from the hustle and bustle of the hot dry San Joaquin Valley. Although the population sign indicates 500 residents, I am doubtful of the number. We have one large hotel/resort complex, the Tenaya Lodge, but no gas station or restaurants. A small general store offers some staples and a pretty mean sandwich and potato salad when there’s enough traffic into the park to keep it open everyday. If you are ever passing through on Highway 41 to Yosemite at least give us a wave as you go by!

“THE MOUNTAINS ARE CALLING AND I MUST GO”            John Muir