Despite the devastation caused by California's wildfires, the annual fire season has arguably brought communities closer. When the CZU Fire forced evacuations in August 2020, Peninsula residents banded together to evacuate animals, provide food for weary firefighters and help impacted residents, farmers and business owners.
What's missing from these support systems, however, is a method of processing the monumental loss caused by climate disasters. Artists across California and the West Coast could not just mourn what had been lost: They felt compelled to create something out of it and share their work with others.
"Fire Transforms," an exhibit that opened earlier this month at the Palo Alto Art Center, goes further than showcasing the destructive nature of fire. The exhibited works link to three central, interconnected themes — living with fire, learning with fire and creating with fire — to show that a fire's impact is life-altering and long-lasting. The show is guest-curated by Rina Faletti, whose personal experience with Napa wildfires in 2017 inspired her to turn to environmental art. Faletti works with Napa-based Art Responds to examine and curate art that fosters meaningful conversations about climate and environmental crises. She said that with art as an intermediary, it is easier to have difficult conversations about climate change.
"Art offers a safe place of solace after the trauma of the firestorm has passed," Faletti said in a statement.
"Fire Transforms" is one of three exhibits in the art center's yearlong "Climate Connections" series; an exhibit about water and one about Earth will be on display in the spring and summer of 2023. With the Palo Alto City Council's Sustainability and Climate Action Plan in mind, "Climate Connections"' exhibits and public programs aim to tackle environmental education and awareness in an accessible way that will build awareness about the need for action. "Fire Transforms" features pieces from more than 20 artists working in several different media, many of whom have lived through the devastating effects of Northern California wildfires over the past decade.
Palo Alto Art Center Director Karen Kienzle worked to make the exhibit educational as well as uplifting through a thoughtful selection of works, partnerships with local organizations and community events.
"Fire is destructive, but there is also this possibility for regeneration, rebirth and regrowth after fire," Kienzle said.
The exhibit's collection of hazy, pictorial photographs depicting smoky landscapes was taken by Young Suh, a photographer and art professor at UC Davis.
"There is an annual anxiety around fires that has only grown," Suh said.
He photographed the "Forest Invisible'' project between 2008 and 2012 during fire season in Northern California. One group of photographs in the series documents the beautifully eerie, thick smoke that blankets forests in the aftermath of a fire. The second grouping of images in the project focuses on fire management and containment strategies that Suh was invited to observe by the U.S. Forest Service. By studying and photographing controlled burn tactics and teams of inmates training to become firefighters, Suh gained insight into the aspects of modern fire management that has become "its own industry and ecosystem."
Maintaining an aesthetic quality to the images was important for Suh. He describes his initial encounter with California fires as a "jarring" experience that involved waking up and not seeing the sun; it felt "apocalyptic." However, there was a subtle beauty to the suffocating smoke that comes across in his images.
For Suh and several other featured artists in "Fire Transforms," it's important to create spaces for artistic experiences amidst traumatic events. He hopes that visitors can find comfort and reflection in his images while learning about modern fire containment practices.
"Telling a story has its own healing power just by recounting what happened to you. It helps you rearrange the event from your own voice, and I think pictures are a great tool to aid that process," Suh said.
Documentary photographer Norma I. Quintana and her family lost their Napa home in the 2017 Northern California firestorm. Quintana processed the monumental loss by revisiting the site where her home once stood and sifting through the rubble, trying to salvage anything she could. A series of photographs and salvaged items from her "Foraged From Fire" series will be on display in the main gallery and outside in the courtyard. The salvaged items will be displayed in a vitrine, like artifacts in a museum, to serve as a historical record of the damage caused by wildfires.
The fire destroyed Quintana's art studio and all of her film camera equipment, leaving her to use an iPhone to document found objects from the site by placing them atop one of the black gloves she wore to sift through the ruins. While Quintana said most people wouldn't return to their home after it burned down, she found it to be a therapeutic experience.
"Art allows you this channel for breath; it became the way to negotiate the loss of my home," Quintana said.
Other featured artists in "Fire Transforms" create works that directly educate and inspire climate activism. Los Altos artist Linda Gass specializes in textile art about water issues and land use in California. The Palo Alto Art Center will display Gass' "Severely Burned: Impact of the Rim Fire on the Tuolumne River Watershed" in the main gallery.
The piece documents the destruction to the Tuolumne River watershed by the 2013 Rim Fire, as 96% of the burned area was in the watershed. In "Severely Burned," Gass stitched the fire's vegetation burn severity map and the topographical map of the area onto a piece of silk to demonstrate that the Rim Fire burned the area so severely that the actual topography of the watershed was now visible from above due to the absence of trees.
"I want people to think about not only the destruction of forests and plants and wildlife habitat … What else do these fires do to our environment?" Gass said.
In addition to showing works that invite visitors to learn and reflect on their experiences with climate-related natural disasters, the art center will partner with a local nonprofit during every exhibition in the Climate Connections series, fundraising for the featured organization as well as educating visitors on steps they can take to address climate change on a more individual level.
To further dialogue about climate change's impact on the Peninsula, Palo Alto-based climate awareness nonprofit EngageOn partnered with the art center to create an interactive map of Palo Alto that shows the specific locations that are subject to climate change-related environmental effects. Visitors can explore how areas like the Baylands and foothills might change as global warming progresses.
"What we're learning through the total disaster of wildfire is that we can see ourselves getting through this as a globe and locally … We all can participate in the healing," Faletti said.
"Fire Transforms" runs through Dec. 10 at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road in Palo Alto. On Oct. 23, visitors are invited to participate in Family Day and learn about fire prevention and safety from a team of local firefighters. Artist talks will take place on Zoom Nov. 18 and Dec. 9. For more information visit cityofpaloalto.org.