As a former Los Angeles TV News reporter, I covered more wildfires than I would choose to remember–painful, sometimes deadly news events–that stick with me to this day. I can still see the flashes of horror and loss: panicked people–and pets–seeking safe ground, exhausted firefighters making one last run at a fierce wall of flames, as frightened neighbors pray their homes won’t be next. It’s almost impossible to describe what it’s like to witness that level of chaos and fear, but when I smell smoke, even today, it takes me right back to the scene.
So it was with a little trepidation I checked out a new art exhibit in Glendale, California. In a series of shows aptly titled “Art from the Ashes,” sculptors, painters, designers and craftsmen are invited to incorporate debris from Southern California wildfire sites into their artwork.
These fires tend to consume a staggering number of acres of mountain brush, and sometimes they insidiously fan out right through our neighborhoods. Last year’s Station Fire ravaged 250-square-miles of land, killed two firefighters, and destroyed 89 homes. On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be much there to celebrate.
But artists see things differently. It’s what fascinates and inspires me. They see images, remnants, fragments and particles, in radically different ways. Once strained through their own filters, their interpretations can lead us onto new paths of understanding and appreciation.
In “Art from the Ashes” we can see these translations as delicate, touching, and sobering reminders of the process of rebirth from a tragic thrashing of nature. In these ravaged communities and hillsides—if we’re open to it–we can find a strange beauty.
Check out the stunning patterns of burnt sienna and grays in Jonathan Chow’s photo of a corroded metal plant plaque recovered from the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden fire in May of last year (Pic #2, top), and the subtle patina that emerges from a rusted metal plate found and photographed by Joy Feuer (also founder of the non-profit organization, “Art from the Ashes”) in the Cisco Home Warehouse fire in South Central Los Angeles. (Pic #4).
The simple patterns of cracked and charred branches from the Santa Barbara fire create textured rows of touchable shapes (Pic #6). Artist Ryan Wildstar transformed a burned, rusted metal spring frame recovered from a scorched Deukmejian Wilderness Park (a fire that burned 690 of the park’s 709 acres in September 2009) into a plant bed for native succulents (Pic #5).
In last summer’s show, designer Corinne Grassini showed how fire can become sustainable, wearable art, by fashioning a minimalist white column dress with a decorative black neckpiece from charred debris salvaged from the park (Pic #7 ).
One of my favorite finds comes from the deliciously twisted mind of artist/actor Toby Huss — who places a displaced, scorched, wooden drawer up on the wall, under a snowy screen of shattered, melted glass and wire from two LA fires. (Pic #8) I couldn’t stop examining the clusters of glass, obscuring a printed image peeking from behind.
(You may know Huss from his work in film and TV. He’s one of my favorite comic actors, known for his quirky portrayals of Frank Sinatra, and for his voiceover work on the long running animated series King of the Hill. ) A profile on Toby planned for a future post in The Lardner Report.
Proceeds from “Art from the Ashes” benefits the communities and businesses devastated by fire. For more information, log on to: http://www.artfromtheashes.org