Wildfires throughout Oregon have caused devastating damage to homes and landscapes, yet some artists still managed to create something new for Oregonians to enjoy. Troy Stith, is a Bend resident who creates landscape drawings out of wildfire charcoal. Kelly Howard is the owner of Lincoln City Glass Center and created glass pieces out of the ashes of burned homes. Bryan Griffith is an Arizona-based artist who currently has an exhibit titled, “Rethinking Fire” at the High Desert Museum on display until January 9th. They join us to share what it means to create works of art out of a natural disaster.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Wildfires are not one single thing. They are a lot more complicated than that. They are at turns man-made and natural, devastating and rejuvenating, preventable and inevitable. And so it makes sense that artists who make art about wildfires would produce similarly diverse work, visual depictions that capture pain and peace, destruction and rebirth. We’re going to hear from three such artists right now. Kelly Howard is a glass blower from Lincoln City. Troy Stith is a painter and a charcoal artist from Bend and Bryan David Griffith is based in Flagstaff, Arizona. His exhibition “Rethinking Fire” is on display right now at the High Desert Museum in Bend. It’s great to have all three of you on Think Out Loud.
Bryan David Griffith: Thank you.
Troy Stith: Great to be here.
Kelly Howard: Thanks for having us.
Miller: Bryan David Griffith, first, you’ve been making art with and also about fires for something like seven years now. What was your starting point?
Griffith: Well, the starting point was a project called “Fires of Change”, which was sponsored by the Southwest Fire Consortium here where artists would go and learn about wildfire in the field with scientists and I got the call for that project and I didn’t know whether I was going to accept it or not. And literally a few days after that call, the Slide Fire broke out at Oak Creek Canyon just south of my home and I got another call which was to prepare to evacuate. And all of my films and negatives, so my life’s work and livelihood at the time, were in the house and my wife and I were 2000 miles away at an art fair on the East Coast. So I’m making calls back and forth to try to get things out of the house and watching that fire unfold in the national media. And the short story is we got lucky. Due to over 1000 firefighters and some changes in the wind and past fuel treatments, remarkably no lives or structures were lost in that fire. But I called up the curator for that project and I said, “Hey, count me in because I want to help rather than feel helpless, like I do right now.”
Miller: That’s interesting. So, but that was the reason, I want to help, as opposed to, I want to make art out of this, or maybe those are the same thing in your mind?
Griffith: Well, there are stages that you go through emotionally, I guess. At first it’s just the urgency of, what do I do? You’ve become very task focused and then there’s kind of a helpless feeling, especially when you’re remote, like I was, but I think even for the people that are going through a fire because you can’t really go to the fire line and help out like someone like me would. And then there’s kind of an acceptance that we can move on.
Miller: What do you remember from the first time you went out with scientists? Because it seems like that’s an interesting part of this partnership. It was scientists and artists bringing their own points of view and disciplines to fires.
Griffith: Yes, it was really enlightening and one of the first fire sites I went to, it was actually unplanned as part of the project, that there was a controlled burn that had just happened, so we got to walk onto the site while they were still mopping up, so it was still basically smoldering. So you have smoke billowing off of these burned trees, and it’s really after any fire, it’s incredibly solemn and arresting and fires can be incredibly destructive as we all know, and they can also be beneficial. And I’ve kind of come to see the difference after visiting so many different sites, but it’s always kind of solemn, interesting no matter the fire, right afterwards. For me as an artist, that’s really important because I discovered things on site, being hands-on, that I could not conceive of beforehand. So, fire is all inspiring in a way, even when it’s destructive. I try to see it through the eyes of an artist, objectively without my judgments and preconceptions of what it should be. And I find these incredible sculptures that nature has made that I could never have conceived of myself.
Miller: Kelly Howard, you’ve been a glass artist for more than 20 years and from the way I understand it, one of the ways you have been incorporating what’s left after fires in your work is literally putting ash inside the glass. What led you to start doing that?
Howard: Well in 2019, I I lost my mother and I started making memorial pieces for people, of their pets and loved ones and when the fires happened in Lincoln City at the Echo Mountain Fire, so many of my friends lost their homes and one of my coworkers lost her home and her partner came through the studio, because they had stayed in the studio when they had lost their home and saw me making the memorials and and was like, do you think you could make pieces with ashes from our house? And I was like, oh my goodness, that’s an amazing idea. And then we had, we were thinking of like fundraisers immediately after the fires just to help all the people because that rural community was already, having, it’s hard to be on the Oregon Coast with COVID and everything going on, it was really difficult. So anyway, we started working on a project where she designed some, we make these coins that have like a, it’s a metal stamp that you press into the glass. And so she designed one with the Phoenix. The artist’s name is Danielle Jones, she’s the one that did the Phoenix design and then we started selling those to the community and online and raising money to give to the Panther Creek Community Center that was giving household goods and all the things that you need when you’ve lost everything. And then we also did a Phoenix project where I sculpted a Phoenix out of glass and then had the Lincoln City Community Center do an auction and and we ended up raising, I think the Phoenix sold for $1,025 and then we did another one because it went so well and yeah, the Community Center raised about, I think $18,000. It’s pretty, pretty amazing. So yeah, but the ashes, putting the ashes in the glass is is always very moving, like you never really, you never really are unconscious, I mean glassblowing in itself is a very conscious activity where you’re very focused on what you’re doing and when you’re working with ashes and especially things that are so meaningful for people, it’s yeah, it’s an experience over the last, I’ve been doing it since 2019 on a really regular basis and sometimes it’s hard. It’s hard because it means a lot to people and it’s a lot of pressure when you’re making it and you always want them to come out perfect. Because you know that the person that gets it is going to really, you know it’s really important to them.
Miller: Do people if they come to you with ashes, as you said, the first time that this was after a wildfire, your friend came to you with ashes from her house, did she tell you what she wanted you to do with those ashes?
Howard: She, we had that idea to do the Phoenix, to sculpt the Phoenix out of it and then the other idea was to put them into the coins and sell the coins to raise funds for the community and yeah, but I actually, since doing that, had a number of other people and I did go, I went to their houses where their houses have been and got to walk through and collect the ashes myself with them. And that was really, that was really hard and I had so many people sending me pictures of glass of mine that they had in their homes that had melted as well. That was really hard to see. Once in a place…
Miller: Like the exact opposite of incorporating ash in your work is people told you that they had your work and then it was gone.
Howard: Yeah, yeah. You know, collections, I had actually a man that lost his wife and so when the fire happened, the house burned and he couldn’t find, he only had a tiny little bit of ashes left from her. And she had this paperweight collection and he asked if I could remake some paperweights from the paper weights of his wife’s collection and incorporate the tiny bit of ash that he had left of her, into a paperweight.
Miller: Troy Stith, I want to bring you into this conversation as well. As I mentioned, you’re an artist from Bend. You’ve been a painter. You’re also, in the last couple of years, you’ve been working with charcoal but not charcoal that you would buy in an art supply store, instead, charcoal from wildfires. What drew you to start using that?
Stith: I love the outdoors. So I’m hiking all the time, rock climbing, those kinds of things. And I’m actually from Ohio originally, so wildfires to me are a brand new thing, kind of. I’ve only been out here in Oregon for about 4, 4.5 years now. So having to adjust and learn about wildfires has been a big thing. So hiking through those lands that had been hit by wildfires really struck me, where it’s beautiful but also a disaster at the same time. But yet when I, by the time I’m hitting those places, usually the growth is, and the regrowth is happening. So it’s kind of a rebirth within those, and as I was walking through there, I’ve always used charcoal a lot of the time and I’m looking down at the ground and I’m wondering, what am I not using any of this charcoal for? So actually my first time I just kind of picked it up and Neolithic, almost just started drilling the rocks and such out there and decided to gather quite a bit of it up and take it home with me and start to recreate these places and I also like to go out and create the places with plain air charcoal, basically and start drawing them on location as well. So I have gone around a lot of places so I can mostly channel my feelings that I had when I collected those and create landscapes from nothing or I’ll be on site creating landscapes right with the charcoal that I’ve gathered, a kind of inspiration just to be surrounded with that material. And then when you are striking the paper with it, it creates a whole tree from one piece of charcoal because the textures carry over where refined charcoal is smooth and has no character like the wild charcoal does.
Miller: Oh so, you were cutting out for a second there, but if I understand correctly, if you buy charcoal in a store, it doesn’t have, it doesn’t have the texture that that naturally burned wood does that you might just find after a wildfire?
Stith: Yeah, that’s correct. It’s a lot more refined, smooth, it just creates a nice smooth texture when you’re drawing, kind of like a graphite pencil. But the wild charcoal is hunks of tree or just hunks of tree laying on the ground that I’m breaking down to find viable pieces and those kind of things and some still carry their full texture from the tree. So when you’re laying it down, it will lay the whole texture of the tree bringing it back to life.
Miller: You noted that you have been a charcoal artist for a while, so before you came to central Oregon, and I imagine back when you were in Ohio, do you find that you’re, you’ve been drawn to create different images because of where this charcoal came from, because of fire?
Stith: Most certainly. A lot of my charcoal before was a lot of abstract portraiture work, still included a lot of nature elements. But having this charcoal definitely makes me want to bring back the landscapes that I’m pulling it from, rather than using it for something else. I’m normally not a landscape artist, but this charcoal has definitely made me so.
Miller: My understanding is, like Kelly, you two have gotten commissions for your work. What have people been asking you?
Stith: I’ve actually had a few. I actually had a realtor contact me before because their client was actually the victim of a wildfire and their house was lost. So she had seen that I’d been doing these drawings and contacted me to do a commission for their new home. That way they would have a memory that would be sinking and also something beautiful coming out of that memory to give to their new place of home. I’ve also had people that had lost barns, that have pieces of their barn left, that they’ve sent me pieces of their barn to reconstruct just pictures of their land. I’ve also had people traveling through other areas per se and collecting charcoal from burn sites that were significant to them and sending me their charcoal so I can work with their charcoal and the image that they’d like to see.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now with three different artists who have different media that they really focus on, but who all make art about and in some cases with fire. Troy Stith is an artist from Bend, Kelly Howard is a glassblower, owner of Lincoln City Glass Center and Bryan David Griffith is a visual artist based in Flagstaff, but he’s behind the “Rethinking Fire” exhibit at the High Desert Museum in Bend. Bryan, we’ve all gotten pretty used to seeing certain kinds of images of wildfires at this point, the massive flames and photographs or charred fields after the fire has passed, increasingly aerial shots from drones, maybe burly firefighters working on the fire line or coming back from from firefighting. I’m curious what you find to be the challenges as a visual artist in portraying fires in ways that we haven’t become inured to, that we’re not used to seeing?
Griffith: Yeah, that was the challenge I faced, because I was brought onto that “Fires of Change” project as a photographer. And I realized there was already a lot of excellent work out there that you talked about, but I really wanted to address some abstract ideas and cultural perceptions about fire that kind of stand in the way of us making progress on the issue. And I really struggled with how to do that with a camera. And the other thing I realized was that the problem with talking about things like fire or climate change is that they have become politicized. So as soon as people hear language that’s familiar to them, they dig into their entrenched beliefs and they close their minds. So I thought, what if I could engage people on the visceral, sensory level before their preconceptions kick in? What if I could bring the burn materials and the power of fire itself into the gallery directly without the intermediate area of a camera or a paintbrush or words, could I open minds that way?
Miller: So what do you think people are encountering then? That’s that different?
Griffith: Well, when you walk into the gallery in Bend, the first thing that you see before you see the artist statement, even everything or anything else is these massive burned trees that I brought in from fire sites and what hits you is the smell of burned wood. So that I think is peaking people’s curiosity and drawing them in. The work is very abstract, there’s a lot of ways of using, everything is made with fire, but some of the techniques I had to invent myself. So it’s not clear what the piece is, is this a drawing, a painting or a photograph? And so you have to really kind of spend some time with it and the imagery is very nebulous and then there are little kind of issue quotes from scientists about fire and its role in the landscape that you learn through the exhibition, but it’s, everything is very ambiguous. It leaves a lot open to interpretation and a lot open to discovery on the part of the viewer.
Miller: This exhibit was scheduled if I understood the time correctly, before the really destructive 2020 fire season in Oregon, meaning before the fires in Santiam Canyon and around Blue River and outside of Medford. How did that fire season affect what you wanted to show in Bend?
Griffith: Yes, well, it changed things. It was a challenge for me because as you said, this happened after the show was already planned, and I’m working remotely. So I wanted to come up with some way to acknowledge that. But it was really difficult for me and when I got to Oregon, I did visit the Santiam fire site and collected some materials from there. And then here in Arizona, I was doing an experiment with some maple leaves and burning them with some fire and wax and that experiment was kind of a disaster. But I noticed the way the leaves had charred was very arresting and profound and it reminded me of the leaves that had rained down in my yard during the fire and each one was different, like a snowflake or a handprint. And then I got an idea for an installation. So I made an installation at the High Desert Museum where each leaf, each life lost is represented by a charred leaf. And my intent with the charred leaves is that you see the magnitude of loss from afar, you see that statistic, but when you get close, you realize how different and unique each individual one is and that’s what really hits it home for me. I actually chose to install that part alone after the museum staff had gone home for the night because it’s pretty heavy for me to deal with. And since that piece was completed on site, I didn’t know exactly how it would look or really whether it would even work at all beforehand. I was pretty nervous about it, and I felt like there was a lot more weight on my shoulders to get it right because it’s not just about me. And there’s a fine line, I wanted it to be engaging and thought provoking, but still make sure it’s in good taste and respectful of those I’m trying to pay tribute to.
Miller: Bryan David Griffith, Kelly Howard and Troy Stith, thanks so much for joining us. I really appreciate all of your time.
Howard: Thank you.
Stith: Thank you very much for having me.
Howard: I forgot to mention that we also did a project with making floats with ashes in them for all the people that lost their homes. I don’t know if there’s any way to incorporate that, but that was it and we’ve given, I think 95 people have been given floats when they get to move back into their home. So that’s been a really special project that we’ve also done.
Miller: We’ll incorporate it by letting people know that right now. Kelly Howard, Bryan David Griffith and Troy Stith, thanks so much.
Griffith: Thank you.
Miller: Kelly Howard is the owner of Lincoln City Glass Center, Bryan David Griffith is an artist from Flagstaff, the man behind the “Rethinking Fire” exhibit at the High Desert Museum and Troy Stith is a visual artist based in Bend. If you don’t want to miss any of our shows, you can find them on the NPR One app, on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. There’s our nightly rebroadcast at 8p.m as well. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller, we’ll be back tomorrow.
Think Out Loud is supported by Steve and Jan Oliva, the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust, Ray and Marilyn Johnson and the Susan Hammer Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation.
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