Stunning. Challenging. Fascinating.
For those who lost a home to the Okanagan Wildfires, Lake Country Art Gallery’s latest exhibit, From the Soot and Ashes, may be difficult to stomach; but if one can set aside emotion, or revel in it momentarily, the show offers breathtaking reflections.
Pulling together work from two different artists, curator Katie Brennan tackles the undeniable truth in catastrophe: the most destructive elements in nature leave humbling scenes of horror and beauty capable of unearthing our voyeuristic, inquisitive and appreciative inner being with an earth-shattering force.
As photographer Zev Tiefenbach discovers, this often reveals ugly truths.
“I think that there’s a frontier quality to the Kelowna population,” he said. “The calamity of the fire was just another opportunity to develop a previously undevelopable chunk of land.”
Tiefenbach shoots neighbourhoods he finds interesting. He was in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans shooting the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (one day before Hurricane Rita hit) and but has also shot more banal places like Grand Falls, Perborough and Trenton, Ontario. Sometimes the subject is obvious, like the impact of a wildfire; sometimes it’s a tangible beauty his art flushes out of a town or hamlet.
In Kelowna, his lens sought out a neighbourhood rich in the juxtaposition of natural and human forces, which may oppose one another, but ultimately conquer the land they touch, different means to a similar end.
“Kelowna is pure suburbanization,” said Tiefenbach. “People don’t just look at the hillside. They look at a lot. It’s like there’s the hill, but it’s seen as there’s the lot. It has to be owned.
“This is a society that sees development as a divine right, just as the fire was a divine force with divine consequences,” he said.
Initially, Tiefenbach was attracted to the beautiful burnt skeletons of trees along the rolling bare topography of the Upper Mission, recuperating from the 2003 firestorm.
Upon developing his film, however, he started to see the area in a different light.
“It’s the big elements that are at play,” he says. “The big sky, the epic trees reinforce how, sociologically, development is an intrinsic value of the population.”
Plunking big houses across the vast hillside, burned trees or not, lays bare a core addiction to occupying and consuming land less obvious before the fire.
The Wildfire Begat Suburbia, as the collection is called, contains 65 images.
Those selected by Brennan and Tiefenbach for this show feature an omnipresent skyline more dominant than the burnt landscape it’s focused around.
With typical Okanagan mega-homes—large, boxy sand-coloured houses—and the odd wildflower, the photographs showcase highly realistic representation of the Kettle Valley neighbourhood he’s discussing.
The finished product has been set in light boxes intended to accentuate the photograph as art, quite unique from the thousands of Instagram pics and Facebook photos streaming through our collective conscious each day.
It also plays up the divine undercurrent in the image, giving the big sky a God-like feel, with much the same effect as a stained glass window in a church.
“Kelowna sees development as sort of a natural consequence of land use,” Tiefenbach concluded.
Painter Suze Woolf, the other artist in the show, comes at the landscape from the opposite point of view. Setting aside the people on the land, she gets down to the nitty gritty, looking at burnt trees scientifically.
“I find things that are both beautiful and disturbing at the same time very powerful,” said Woolf.
Like Tiefenbach, she sees a destructive hand in wildfires, saying human intervention and mismanagement, combined with our impact on the earth’s climate, are pushing these events to the forefront.
Woolf has done artist in residence stays focusing on burned over trees and landscapes in places like Zion National Park, North Cascades National Park and Banff.
Examining burned topography initially, she’s moved to the finite, even finding herself a forestry professor who can break down and explain the burned trunks and bark at the molecular level.
“There’s tremendous variation in the kind of natural sculpture that results from a fire,” she said, adding the structure of the charred bark under a microscope is shocking. “It could be bridge girders it’s so uniform, and yet, the surface level looks so random.” (Woolf has another collection focused on industrial scenes it’s worth noting).
She has learned there is a carbon database of burned trees and says identifying the different types of charred skeletons from the shapes and quality of the ashes.
“The spacing of the trees, how hot the fire was, the conditions all influence what kind of remains there are,” she said. “And yet, there’s commonality.”
Woolf will throw herself further into research mode as she continues to break down the elements of wildfires. Listening to her talk, there’s a fever for knowledge that reminds one of how a fire chews through its surroundings.
The voices of these two outsiders, Tiefenbach from Enderby and Woolf from Seattle, offer a unique critique worth considering as neighbours and news organizations relive the impact of the 2003 wildfires on the 10 year anniversary of the event.
Lake Country Art Gallery is at 10356A Bottom Wood Lake Road. The exhibition is free, but closes Aug. 31.