Processing the Trauma of Wildfires Through Art

September and October are considered the most vulnerable months during California’s fire season. Leading up to Labor Day, a record-breaking heat wave brought some of the hottest days in California history, leaving the door wide open for wildfires to ignite at the blink of an eye. As Golden State residents adjust to this new normal, an exhibition at the Palo Alto Art Center (PAAC) convenes artists to commemorate loss, survival, and growth in light of climate change’s exponential severity. Fire Transforms, curated by Rina Faletti, showcases works from over a dozen Bay Area artists “in response to the phenomenon of fire.”

On view until December 10, Fire Transforms addresses three central themes — living with fire, learning with fire, and creating with fire — that reflect the way larger populations respond to fire and “its multiplicities of ways of creating change and transformation in our lives, locally, regionally, and globally,” Faletti told Hyperallergic. This is the first of four exhibitions lined up at PAAC for the Climate Connections program series, aligning with the Palo Alto City Council’s current-year priority of addressing climate change.

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Linda Gass, “Severely Burned: Impact of the Rim Fire on the Tuolumne River Watershed” (2014) )(photo by Jeff Tuttle; courtesy the artist)

Photographer Norma I. Quintana leaned into the notion of living with fire through her photo series Forage from Fire. Quintana’s home was one of hundreds destroyed in the Atlas Peak fire that ravaged Napa county in 2017. With five minutes to evacuate, Quintana had to leave everything behind. She came back to find that the fire had effectively leveled her home, studio, and destroyed all her photo equipment — including 250 cameras.

While processing the trauma of such tremendous loss, she was overwhelmed by her need to document. Quintana sifted through the debris of her home and photographed the charred, gnarled, and flaking mementos with her iPhone. Regarding what she wants viewers to take away from Fire Transforms, Quintana told Hyperallergic that recovery comes to mind.

Norma I. Quintana, “Typewriter”(2018) (image courtesy the artist)

“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,” she said. “Sifting of what remained brought me to the past and the work created a path forward.”

Adrien Segal, “Camp Fire” (2017), bronze cast (image courtesy the artist)

Research-based artist Adrien Segal encourages her viewers to learn from fire by reinterpreting statistical data into organic bronze-cast sculptures and drawings. In her Wildfire Progression series, Segal focused on three specific wildfire incidents caused by human activity in recent California history. She translated the objective data from the selected wildfire progression patterns and developed 2-D and 3-D iterations using computer-aided design (CAD) software.

“The universe is ultimately governed by natural forces, and despite the fact that humans have created a lens by which we study, quantify, and measure nature to deduct abstract data, all of that still is occurring within these natural forces,” Segal told Hyperallergic.

The act of digging through analytic data to reveal the natural patterns that point to the changes in a landscape over time enables her to develop tactile, intuitive works that make space for emotional connection and sensory experience. Her featured sculptures and drawings are “a more expansive representation” of data than the limitations of science allow.

Adrien Segal, “Rim Fire” (2015), ink and charcoal harvested from Rim Fire wood on paper (image courtesy the artist)

Segal mentioned that personal experience with the fires impacted her way of representing the wildfire progression maps. She recalled the smell, the heat, and the dark sky when she collected charcoal near Lake Tahoe after the Rim Fire died down. She ultimately turned the charcoal into ink that she used in her drawing, “Rim Fire Progression.”

Samantha Fields, “10 Santa Monica” (2012) (image courtesy the artist)

Jonah Ward went above and beyond when it came to creating with fire, utilizing two specific techniques he developed as a student at the California College of the Arts in his 2022 installation “Born from within the Burnt Forest.” The work consists of several standing sculptures of paper “trees” created from a clash between fire and water. The hollowed “trees” contain delicate glass drippings webbed over in cylindrical structures, evoking a skeletal quality that indicates loss and destruction. The perimeter of the installation is lined with thin wood panels, scarred with burns from dripping trails of molten glass stamped across their surfaces — another technique developed by Ward.

Jonah Ward’s 2022 installation “Born from within the Burnt Forest” on display at Palo Alto Art Center (image courtesy the artist)

“The use of heat, fire, water, wood and paper all came with using glass. There is a very primal connection that I was instinctively drawn to,” Ward told Hyperallergic when discussing how his practice relates to his surrounding environments. “Having grown up surrounded by nature, these elemental mediums and processes just seemed right to me.”

Exhibition visitors are welcome to attend a free Family Day event on October 23 at PAAC to participate in hands-on art workshops and learn more about fire safety. Those who would like to hear more from the artists can tune in to talks taking place on November 18 and December 9, to be announced on the center’s website.


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