Ashes to Ashes is a series of drawings depicting recent Arizona wildfires, rendered with charcoal samples personally collected from each fire site. Each drawing is displayed with its corresponding charcoal sample. The collection represents fourteen significant wildfires from 1990 to the present, with archived photographs used as references. This project is in conjunction with Fires of Change: a partnership between the arts and sciences, sponsored by the Southwest Fire Science Consortium, Landscape Conservation Initiative, and Flagstaff Arts Council with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
While regular wildfire cycles are essential for the health of the ecosystem, they are frequently accompanied by negative public perception of wilderness devastation and human disaster. The increased size and severity of recent fires – due to suppression strategies that began over a century ago, and the continual drought and warming trends resulting from climate change – have taken toll on the environment and humans alike.
The use of charcoal, as an art medium, dates back to the earliest Paleolithic cave paintings. That it still prevails today (in a refined and compressed form) attests to charcoal’s variety of applications and archival nature. Working with the unrefined, burnt remnants of Ponderosa Pine or Manzanita found at each wildfire site presented creative challenges such as achieving tonal range and detail on a small scale, and meeting contemporary expectations with an archaic medium.
The objective of these drawings is to reverse the public perception trajectory as viewers gain a renewed appreciation for the necessity of wildfire toward sustaining the longevity of our shared landscape.
Contrast. Inversion. Black and white. Negative and positive. Catalina-Rincon Panorama is one image that shows the contrast between two landscapes: one is inhabited by humans and wildfire is suppressed, and the other is not.
Catalina-Rincon Panorama is rendered with wildfire charcoal collected from wildfire sites on two adjacent mountains outside of Tucson, Arizona. The density of charcoal in the drawing reflects the relative frequency and severity of wildfires in recent history. The charcoal samples used to create the drawing are displayed in proximity to each wildfire site.
The Santa Catalina Mountains are Tucson’s most prominent range with the highest peak of the Sky Islands on Mt. Lemmon (elev. 9147 ft). The inhabited areas include Summerhaven, Ski Valley, and Sabino Canyon, accessible by the Catalina Highway (General Hitchcock Highway). The Rincon Mountains, by comparison, peak at Mica Mountain (elev. 8668 ft). The wilderness is vehicle-accessible only by Mescal Road (Forest Road 35), so the wilderness remains remote despite its close proximity to Tucson.
Herein lies the disparity that serves as the basis for this drawing. From a bystander’s perspective, the Santa Catalina Mountains appear green. The higher elevation range allows for diversity in the vegetation, ranging from saguaro to aspen forests. Due to human inhabitation, fires are suppressed. This results in dense vegetation capable of producing high severity mega-fires. The Rincon Mountain Wilderness, on the other hand, appears brown. At a lower elevation, the ecosystem ranges from desert chaparral to ponderosa pine. Since this is uninhabited wilderness, naturally occurring wildfires are permitted to take a natural trajectory. Vegetation is reduced through regular wildfire cycles so fires are typically smaller and manageable. Ironically, while the Santa Catalina appears to be the healthier of the two mountains, the Rincon Wilderness is the more sustainable environment.