Forest⇌FIRE, an interdisciplinary and multi-sensory exhibition that opened in December 2021, harnesses the power of art to educate the surrounding community about science and conservation.

The exhibit tells the story of humans, forests and fires — the delicate dangers and necessities of each element — focusing on the conservation of the Sierra Nevada Forest and its surrounding community. Forest⇌FIRE includes everything from sculpture, photography, beadwork and textiles, painting, multisensory walks to educational materials for children.

In addressing the impact of human actions on our ecosystems, the exhibition echoes the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for Climate Action and Life on Land.

Odds are, we have all seen the devastating Californian fires. Due to climate change, the six-month-long fire season has become a constant threat and year-round crisis. The timber industry, low rainfall and poor maintenance of the forests have greatly contributed to this ongoing problem. In July of 2021, the acreage of fires was triple that of the previous year, with officials calling these “unprecedented fire conditions”.

On the Edge of Sublime by Erika Osborne. Image courtesy of Michael Llewellyn. This oil painting illustrates the anxiety and threat of wildfires as the urbanisation endangers the forest, but also itself.

The Washoe tribe has been in a relationship with these forests for thousands of years, maintaining and protecting the land as well as being dependent on it for provisions of food and water. A huge part of this maintenance included fire.

Forest⇌FIRE aimed to show the relationship between fire and its vital role in healthy forests. For thousands of years, controlled burns were used to maintain forests by indigenous groups like the Washoe all across America. Without their traditional conservation methods, many forests are now collapsing.

The paradox of this project and these methods is that some parts of the forest require controlled burns in order to thrive, but catastrophic burns can wipe out huge areas of forest. In order for the ecosystem to be healthy, small reductions in vegetation and low intensity burns are necessary for long-term growth and ecological resilience. In turn, forests provide biodiversity, clean water and air, act as a sustainable source of timber, and connect the community to the heritage of the land.

Fading Song by Tiffany Bozic. Image courtesy of Tiffany Bozic. This stunning and intricate painting depicts some of the biodiversity threatened by forest fires, painted on a wooden panel.

Micheal Llewellyn, one of the artists behind the exhibit, wanted their project to have a real-world impact and to add value to the larger climate change conversation. The exhibition included an interdisciplinary team of eighteen writers and artists working across various mediums and providing important education about scientific solutions to forest fires, the health of forests, climate change and cultural practices.

Tangled: Systemic Suppresion by Nina Elder. Image courtesy of Micheal Llewelynn. An intricate depiction of the root network winding under the forrest floor created with chainsaw grease and wildfire charcoal.

The creators behind Forest⇌FIRE built the exhibit around the idea of a picture book, with different art pieces in every chapter. To make the works more accessible, each piece came with essays in English, Spanish and Washoe that the public could read as they perused.

Michael Llewellyn, a former Artist-in-Residence at Nevada County Arts Council, began working on this project in 2018. He knew from the start that he wanted it to be a collaboration with the Washoe community and other important stakeholders like the Park District.

“Our exhibition gives voice to real solutions from the science community, industry, federal, state and local fire and water agencies, and our tribal populations,” says the director of Nevada County Arts Counsel Eliza Tudor.

“We invite the public to join us for this conversation while ‘living’ the history and future of our forests in a deeply visceral and beautiful way.”

Forest⇌FIRE also focused on educating the next generation on the importance of conservation. An animated film “A Fire for All” by Christpher Baldwin and a children’s book “Who Needs a Forest Fire” authored by Paula Henson were vital parts of the project. Further, Forest⇌Fire presented opportunities for local school field trips in which first hand science and art exploration was open to students to learn more about conservation and forest ecology.

Pine Cone Claok by Cedra Wood. Courtesy of Michael Llewellyn. Created in 2018 this sculpture was created out of thousands of hand-sown pinecone scales.

“Forest Fire was born from our desire as artists to engage climate change head-on.  What could we do to serve our community in facing the coming challenges? What could we do to help our community figure out what to do about catastrophic fire and water insecurity?” said Heater Llewellyn, the show’s co-creator.

After coordinating with the science department at UC Berkeley and Sagehen Creek Field, they realised there were already relationships between the native tribe, land managers, fire departments and other stakeholders, as well as solutions and plans in place that they could use as a springboard for their awareness campaign. By involving all the stakeholders and catering towards their communities’ interests, Forest⇌FIRE turned serious issues and scientific solutions into artfully told stories that spoke to the public.

The exhibit is free and open to anyone in the region till June of 2022. Find out more here. The children’s book is available here.

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