Tahoe-area art exhibit offers new look at forests and fires

Wildfires and art exhibits don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

But Forest = Fire, a new art exhibit in Truckee, is an effort to break the mold of how people think about wildfires.

The walking exhibit at the Truckee Community Recreation Center on Donner Pass Road merges data from scientists and area agencies with work from California writers, artists and Washoe tribal leaders to look at the impact of wildfire in the Sierra Nevada over the past 13,000 years.

The result is an immersive and multi-sensory display of paintings, textiles, beadwork, sculptures, writings and photography.

“We wanted to be part of the climate conversation, but that’s such a big, vague thing,” Michael Llewellyn, one of the artists behind the show, told the Reno Gazette Journal. “So, we thought, what can we do around here? What could we do that has implications for the people that live here but also represents what’s going out in the world?”

He and his wife, Heather, set out to develop a show that would spark a conversation and get people to see forests, and forest fires, differently, he said.

The result is a show that mimics a giant picture book. Each “chapter” of the book features art pieces with accompanying essays written in English, Spanish and the native Washoe language.

The 17 chapters focus on topics such as smoke, soil health, species loss and area watersheds.

It’s “a visual story that’s visceral that people can walk into,” Heather said. “They can look at things, they can read things and kind of get a feel for why we are having catastrophic fire and visualize where it needs to go to create a healthier forest.”

The Llewellyns started the project about five years ago after spending time at the Sagehen Creek Field Station near Donner Summit and hiking the Pioneer Trail from Nevada City, California, to Lake Tahoe.

Artist Sara Smith works on what will be an interactive art pieces for the Forest=Fire exhibit at the Truckee Community Arts Center on Dec 10, 2021.

“We couldn’t figure out how they got wagons through there, the trees were so dense,” Heather said. Then, the couple realized they were hiking through forest that had been altered by decades of logging and fire suppression, resulting in a denser, thicker forest.

The combination of logging and fire suppression in the area substantially altered forest ecology, Michael said. And the relationship between fires, humans and history is what the show explores.

“I hope that people realize the forest that they love is not a happy forest, but they have the opportunity to help it become a healthy forest,” Michael said. “This is not how the forest was meant to be.”

Forest = Fire opened earlier this month at the Truckee Community Recreation Center, 10981 Truckee Way, and runs through June. Admission is free.

“Our exhibition gives voice to real solutions from the science community, industry, federal, state and local fire and water agencies, and our tribal populations,” Eliza Tudor, executive director of Nevada County Arts Council, said in a press release. “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.”

Robert G. Mull

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