I didn’t truly know how wildfires affected Oregon until I visited an art exhibit where I could visually and sonically experience the impacts of fire. I’ve heard about wildfire devastation on the news and from friends, but have never experienced them firsthand. Sarah Grew’s “Ghost Forest” and Jon Bellona’s “Wildfire” transformed a gallery into a haunting, ethereal space of warning. The art installations ran from April 24 to May 4 at the University of Oregon’s LaVerne Krause Gallery.
When I walked into the gallery, I immediately felt a chill down my spine. I was struck by the sound of crackling fire, which I couldn’t hear from outside the space. Then the fragile “ghost trees,” photographs printed on suspended panes of glass, cautioned me to walk carefully around them. The sensitivity of navigating the space made me think of the how dramatically Oregon forests and the ecosystems they house can be reshaped by fire. The ghost trees were carbon-printed images from the 2020 wildfires that devasted our state and other parts of the West, intermixed with historical forest photos. The prints were made using wildfire ash Grew collected from various forest fires across the Western U.S., including 2020’s Holiday Farm Fire, which burned more than 174,000 acres of state, federal and private land in the McKenzie River Valley east of Eugene. Grew muddled the ash and mixed it with binders to create a material that could print images. She then arranged the ghost trees in the gallery to mimic a real forest, with all its twists and turns. At first the ghost trees hanging from cables enveloped in glass overwhelmed my mind. Each photo was facing a different direction, and it was hard to take in. Viewing each image required careful consideration. I accidentally bumped into one and the entire cable started to move, startling me.
The “Ghost Forest” exhibit was accompanied by another art installation, “Wildfire” by Jon Bellona. “Wildfire” is an exponentially sonic exploration of being in the middle of a wildfire. The intense sounds of crackling fire coming from speakers mounted on the walls took me by surprise, and at one point became so loud that I stepped out of the gallery for a moment of quiet.
I had to recognize this privilege. For many Oregonians, the loud, suffocating and frightening wildfires in 2020 were a reality that will affect their lives for years to come. More than 4,000 homes were destroyed in the Labor Day fires, and many forest landowners saw the trees they’d cared for go up in smoke. The social, ecological and economic impacts of these wildfires bear repeating.
The “Ghost Forest” and “Wildfire” exhibit was an exceptional and grounding experience, and a reminder for Oregonians as we enter another wildfire season to do everything we can to prevent and prepare for wildfire.
For wildfire prevention tips, I encourage you to visit Keep Oregon Green’s website. I also encourage you to learn more about the art installations I experienced, at the following links:
• “Ghost Forest”
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