See How California Artists Process Wildfires Through Their Work

A new exhibition showcases art that seeks to make sense of destruction

King Fire Self Portrait
King Fire Self Portrait by Jeff Frost (2018) Courtesy of the artist

In late 2017, California-based fine arts photographer Norma Quintana was planning a trip down to her native Puerto Rico to document Hurricane Maria’s destruction. Instead, she and her family found themselves caught in another natural disaster much closer to home. Beginning in early October, the Atlas Fire ripped through Napa County, burning tens of thousands of acres and lasting weeks. As Quintana and her family evacuated their home, she managed to grab one of her many cameras, not realizing she’d never see the rest.

“The smoke was uber thick and we left with our autos ... we took the contents of our safety deposit box ... not much ... passports, etc. Then I managed to run into my studio and grab my Hasselblad ... with one lens!” she told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Charles Desmarais in 2017.

A Fire Story
A Fire Story by Brian Fies (2019) Courtesy of the artist

When they were finally able to return to their property, everything was gone: her home of nearly 30 years, her studio, her photographs, her prints and her collection of over 100 cameras.

Ever an artist at heart, she began photographing the charred remains of her home and possessions. Those photos would eventually become a series, Forage from Fire. Now, the project can be viewed as part of “Fire Transforms,” a new exhibition at the Palo Alto Art Center,

“What viewers are seeing is an artist acknowledging the brutality of firestorms and creating photographs as a way of processing the crushing loss of her home and studio,” Quintana tells Hyperallergic’s Rhea Nayyar. “Sifting of what remained brought me to the past and the work created a path forward.”

Norma Quintana
Typewriter by Norma Quintana (2018) Courtesy of the artist

The exhibition explores three central themes: living with fire, learning with fire, and creating with fire. It features 19 Bay-area artists, each reflecting on wildfires through a different lens. All of them have either lived through wildfire, worked with fire, or used art to meditate on the cycle of destruction and rebirth through fire. The collection features photography, painting, installation, sculpture, ceramics, textiles and digital media.

One of the artists is Linda Glass, a textile artist and environmental activist, who sewed a map of the damage from the 2013 Rim Fire, the largest recorded fire in the Sierra Nevada. Each of the colors used has a different meaning.

“The light gray threads emphasize how much of the Tuolumne River Watershed was reduced to nothing but ash,” says Gass in her artist statement. “… Some of the severely burned areas will never regrow as forests.”

Severely Burned: Impact of the Rim Fire on the Tuolumne River Watershed
Severely Burned: Impact of the Rim Fire on the Tuolumne River Watershed by Linda Gass (2014) Photo by Jeff Tuttle / Image courtesy of the artist

Brian FiesA Fire Story is a graphic novel and memoir about the artist’s experience losing his home in the 2017 Tubbs Fire, along with 6,000 others. At the time, it was California’s most destructive fire, though the Camp Fire in 2018 would be worse. The artist bought markers and paper and began creating it the day after he evacuated from his home. He posted the drawings online, and they quickly went viral. 

“People who hadn’t been through the fire said my comic helped them understand the experience,” Fies recalls, per the exhibition website. “People who had been through the fire said I got it right.” 

Consequence by Young Suh (2013) Courtesy of the artist

Fire Transforms is the first exhibition in a four-part series called Climate Connections, which explores art’s role in fighting climate change.

“Art offers a safe place of solace after the trauma of the firestorm has passed,” says exhibition curator Rina Faletti in a statement. “How can we learn to transform our fear, sadness, loss, anger and confusion into something more comforting and clear? How can we rest from climate fatigue, even as we face the real and tragic losses that fire causes in the face of global-scale change? Thankfully, we have artists to help us.”

Fire Transforms” will be on view at the Palo Alto Art Center through December 10.

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