'Fires of Change' Exhibit Brings Illumination
Eleven artists explore fire-science research in a much-anticipated showing at the UA Museum of Art that will run through April.

By Rebecca Peiffer, NASA Space Grant Intern, University Relations - Communications
Dec. 2, 2015


Bryan David Griffith's "Broken Equilibrium and Reconstruction" welcomes visitors into the exhibit.
Bryan David Griffith's "Broken Equilibrium and Reconstruction" welcomes visitors into the exhibit. (Photo: Bryan David Griffith)

Fire is a powerful symbol in art, able to convey destruction and power but also passion and the potential for change.

The "Fires of Change" exhibit, now at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, brings this symbolism to life. From large installations made from trees to charcoal drawings made from ash collected at various fire sites, the impact of wildfires on forests feels almost tangible in the exhibit space.

The exhibit's 11 artists worked with the Southwest Fire Science Consortium to learn about wildfire management before creating their pieces.

"This project had a very factual basis," said David Chorlton, a Phoenix poet involved in the exhibit. "It led me to re-understand fire and even nature."

"The exhibition should inspire audiences to think critically about the increase in severity, size and number of wildfires in the Southwest," says James Burns, director of UAMA.

Artists have chosen different mediums to express their visions. In addition to Chorlton, the participating artists are Kathleen Brennan of Taos, New Mexico; Julie Comnick of Prescott; Bryan David Griffith of Flagstaff; Craig Goodworth of Newberg, Oregon; Jennifer Gunlock of Los Angeles; Saskia Jorda of Scottsdale; Helen Padilla of Flagstaff; Bonnie Peterson of Michigan; Katharina Roth of Sedona; and Steven Yazzie of Phoenix.

The artists spent a week in 2014 in fire science boot camp with the Southwest Fire Science Consortium and the Landscape Conservation Initiative, learning about the impact of wildfire in northern Arizona. They then spent the year creating original works based on their experiences. The Flagstaff Council for the Arts partnered with the consortium and the initiative to produce the exhibit. 

Why choose art as the medium to educate the public about fire?

John Tannous, executive director of the Flagstaff Council for the Arts, believes the destructive properties of fire are closely tied to our cultural perceptions.

"With Smokey Bear telling people that fires need to be stamped out, for example, we've built up a negative culture of fire," Tannous says.

The exhibit is an attempt to change that view in light of research done over the past 20 years, which suggests the opposite — that fire is "as essential to the forest as breathing," says Donald Falk, associate professor in the UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment. 

The negatives go beyond simply giving fire a bad name. Tannous says they have led to fire-suppression policies that seriously damage forest landscapes.

"Low-severity fires reduce the fuels in the forest and kill the small seedlings and weaker trees, keeping the forest open for healthier growth," Falk explains.

Without these low-severity fires, Falk says, when fires do break out they burn much stronger, damaging the forest and threatening the nearby human population. This can be seen near Flagstaff, where the exhibit originally showed, as well as in Tucson, particularly in the Sky Island forests.

Much fire research has come out of the UA, through the work of Falk and the world-renowned Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.

Burns recognized this when he agreed to showcase the exhibit, which will run at UAMA through April 3.

"It is a good fit for the University of Arizona, given the ground-breaking climate and fire-science research done here," he says.

Extra info

Learn more about fire art with "Untamed Art: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Fire Painting," presented by Stephen Pyne. The presentation will be at 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 3, and is included with UAMA admission.