Culture » Visual Arts

From the scorched landscape, images of creativity and hope

Brush fire



Editor's note: This story was updated, Thurs., June 20, to reflect a change in the Ashes to Artexhibition dates.

The wrought-iron bench could almost blend into the gray, ashy background, if not for the yellowed burn marks clinging to its curves. It stood intact in front of the charred hills the Waldo Canyon Fire seemed so eager to consume.

Something clicked in Sherry Brand's head. This was something we were all in together, she thought, and she preserved the scene with a snap of her camera. Through the help of a neighbor, Brand eventually found the homeowner, Joanie Grant, who actually reinforced the photographer's notion; Grant said the bench was important to her because it signified the idea of two people uniting. Could be strangers, neighbors, family. Anyone.

So when Brand decided she wanted to curate a Waldo Canyon Fire art show, it was that bench image she thought of first.

"I wanted to show a different aspect not shown in newspapers — the human aspect," Brand says. "I wanted to tell a story about the community."

The Waldo Canyon Fire sparked a year ago this week, destroying 347 homes, damaging 40 more, and killing two residents in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood. More than 18,000 acres burned, turning colorful summer landscapes into ashy monochromes. Hoping to help heal some of the leftover scars — and, of course, not knowing that the Black Forest Fire would create so many new ones — many community members have been working for months to artistically commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Waldo blaze.

For Brand, it was important to pull in artists who work in other media — watercolor, oil, wood, sculpture — for her Waldo Fire Anniversary Exhibit at Front Range Alliance Church. But one of the most striking displays may be something more unexpected: Joanie's actual bench, which will be on display right underneath Brand's photo of it.

'Part of our history'

Local artist Steve Weed has put together 20 pieces since last fall that all incorporate paint with fire ashes (See "Art from the ashes," Sept. 5, 2012), and they're currently displayed under the title of Ashes to Art on Chapel Hills Mall's upper level. He's already made prints of each image and given them to first responders to thank them for their service last year; eventually, the paintings will be auctioned off to benefit the nonprofit organization Colorado Springs Together.

"We're helping to rebuild our community," Weed says. "[The paintings] aren't necessarily sad — it's helping a lot of people."

That would include himself. Though his home in Mountain Shadows was spared, Weed's sense of despair grew upon returning to his neighborhood. He says his wife believes it was "a kind of therapy" for him to complete the paintings — darkened landscapes with only small flickers of orange glow, firemen surrounded by flames, and the endless smoky aftermath.

On the other end of the spectrum, at least in terms of color, are the white-backgrounded portraits of Faces of the Fire. Local photographer Wendy Pearce Nelson and journalist Liz Cobb each had friends who lost homes in the fire, and they decided to commemorate the disaster by capturing images of victims, some holding artifacts from the aftermath.

One, Mark Joyous, created "WRECK-IGNITION/RE-COGNITION," a sculpture that, he explains, "pays homage to the chaos and calamity that bent our souls forever." Joyous and his wife salvaged pieces from every room in their burnt house — including a twisted metal filing cabinet, floor vents and chair backs. A bright green hose with garden rocks weaves between the dull brown hues of the burnt materials.

Faces of the Fire artwork will be donated in August to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. Well before that, though, the museum will unveil its own exhibit, From the Ashes: The Waldo Canyon Fire, which aims to showcase the historical importance of the fire in the region.

Museum director Matt Mayberry says museum workers began collecting artifacts the day after the fire started — knowing that they fit into a larger narrative than most people were thinking about at the time.

"We live in the arid West and fires are a part of our history here," he says. "A sad part of that history, but it shouldn't be seen as something with no precedent, no historical context."

As one of the largest natural disasters in the history of the community, the Waldo Canyon Fire is sure to have a long-term impact on the region, Mayberry says. It was a challenge to create an exhibit for such a recent event, when typically museums look back over decades. He hopes the contemporary exhibit offers perspective on the fire that will remain meaningful, even 100 years from now.

Besides photographs, the display includes family mementos recovered from destroyed homes; a T-shirt from WildFire Tees that's meant to pay tribute to the community's passionate response; clothing and equipment worn by fire crews; a jar of black runoff collected in Ute Pass during the first rain following the fire; a cash drawer and other artifacts from the burned Flying W Ranch; and signs of support for emergency crews.

Says Mayberry: "We're trying to tell a wide variety of all of those stories: long-withstanding organizations that geared up for the fire, or nonprofit organizations that appeared overnight to coordinate relief efforts, individuals who greeted firefighters coming off the line."

The Pioneers Museum worked with the Pikes Peak Library District to collect historical records that go beyond the tangible as well, filming oral history interviews with people who lost their homes or were evacuated, as well as with first responders, police officers and firefighters.

Dennis Daily, special collections assistant manager for PPLD, says recording personal memories adds another layer to the history of the fire, and it was important to collect those stories right away to have for the future.

"It was such an emotional event," he says, "and people really wanted to be able to express what they had been through, and what the community had been through."

Dusting it off

At the East Library earlier this month, Daily was hanging pieces of the In Our Own Backyard: Photographs of and after the Waldo Canyon Fire show, which includes snapshots of each residence that burned. As patrons passed by, some stopped to ask questions or reminisce about the fire. He remembers a few people held back tears, crying at the sight of the snapshots.

"It affected everybody here," he says.

Brand understands those emotions. Even though she didn't lose her home, she was forced to evacuate, and says the "emotional trauma" of the fire was felt by nearly everyone.

"I feel such pride in the story we are telling," she says. "I wanted to be sensitive. My hope is people who have lost their homes, who were greatly impacted, will be able to view the show and sense some healing or peace and be touched in a positive way."

Even as more fires test Colorado Springs, as happened last summer and in summers before, people will pick up a camera, or a paint brush, or twisted metal from their own burned homes, and turn instead to creating something new out of the ashes.

"It is all certainly about the fire," Daily says, "but equally about how community responds to tragedy."

Sights for sore eyes

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