Written in 1971 from a hotel view of a fire blazing on the opposite shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, Deep Purple said it: “No matter what we get out of this, I know we’ll never forget – Smoke on the water, fire in the sky.”
Fire is mind blowing and as with many traumatic psychologies, processing the experience helps to heal. Whether artistic practice is therapeutic or tangentially referenced, art can serve as a resource to deal with trauma when it arises. This is nothing new; depictions of the crucifixion for instance strove to translate a traumatic event into an inspirational cue. It sought to find reason in what appeared to be WRONG.
In BC, there has been a haze of smoke that burns eyes and hinders breathing since the Ashcroft and Cache Creek fire began. RV vehicles crowd Okanagan roads heading south, away from Kamloops where evacuation centers are overflowing necessitating refuge in cities further afield. The sky, often obliterated makes it hard to spot new fires. Tension is palpable.
David T. Alexander’s painting titled Smoke on the Lake was completed just two weeks before he had to leave his home in the Okanagan when a fire blazed two blocks distant. He “evacuated” over 300 paintings, which he brought to four different spaces for the site of the next burn is unpredictable. Artist Bruce Taji’s home and studio, one of the sites used to fight that fire is now awash and smoke-damaged while his neighbor’s homes on either side burnt to the ground. Alexander captured an uncanny beauty, nuanced from the smoke drifting in. It is as if he has trapped images of the powerful fire in direct confrontation with living, growing nature, as if memories of the tremendous force hover over the painting. Prescient or processing?
Through many seasons, Herald Nix has been working on obsessive plein-air pieces focusing on the same Okanagan vista, painted hundreds of times that show atmospheric and aesthetic changes registered over differences of time and weather. His recent paintings depict the sun turned red through the smoke scrim with shrouded skies and indistinct rich variations. The mood is sublime.
Impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur Kant suggested that the sublime can embody attributes that cause arrest. Supreme and outstanding, the sublime associates with beauty but remains unattainable. He cited Francisco Goya’s painting Colossus (or Panic), a giant passing behind a mountain whose presence is too far distant to truly know while still being impressive. Joice Hall’s 2003 paintings of the Okanagan Mountain fire bring into range the powerful and sublime force exhibited when a forest fire rages. Painted from photos taken from her studio across the lake, the corpus of the fire wreaks havoc, burning homes as trees candle, advancing through intimate stages of attraction, consummation and then after ravishing, the fire abandons like a pitiless Don Juan moving on to the next conquest. In Hall’s works, nature’s fiery progress is not only horrible but beautiful with colors and shapes unimaginable. She has removed the imminent danger but managed to capture the thrill of the phenomena in fantastic realist vistas.
Fire separates man from his home and possessions and evacuation is the route to saving lives. Separated from the actual danger, the progress of the moving fire is communicated through media and when close enough, watched from a distance like a moving picture show. Fern Helfand captured the divorce with reality that happens when the fire is “over there”. These photographs were not staged and it is likely that some of those watching were residents of the area where the fire was burning, striving to know whether their home had survived the advancing foe – frightened by the ultimate virtual horror show.
Media coverage of wars far afield delivered into our safe lives in real time and technically in focus, can cause insensitivity to the depth of tragedy. Art, evocative and leaving room to feel, can provide clues to the character of the phoenix that can arise from such a devastating rent in life. Like votive religious images art can be therapeutic in the light of trauma, connecting with the mystery of existence, the strange turns and twists of destiny and the insignificance of man before an event so overpowering. Art can help to garner meaning.
In 1996 my Okanagan home burnt to the ground. In a concentrated effort to deal with it, I painted a series with a woman flying above the wreckage, a trickster monkey below in the ashes. During 9-11, I was living in New York just ten blocks north of the Twin Towers and memories of my house fire were roused. Revisiting the trauma I painted Beds are Burning. In 2009, back in the Okanagan, the Fintry Fire swept in and I was evacuated from my summer studio loaded with artworks. Though most of the wooded southern slopes of the valley burned the fire avoided the bubbles of humidity created by fire crews spraying the buildings. The valley was like a war-zone but the battle was won and no lives, buildings or artworks were lost.
As weather patterns speed up through climate change and man has to deal with it, art reassesses our human sensitivity, impact and effectiveness. By translating life’s challenges into art, with the resulting contemplation, insight is inevitable.