While many rejoice at the fact that climate change is comprising a larger role in political parlance, its manifestations are disparate and geographically specific.

Indeed, residents of the Western United States have visualized the Anthropocene — the current geological phase of increased human intervention in the planet’s ecosystem — in worsening drought conditions, drying lake beds, and increasingly frequent wildfires. Many of us recall the haunting early pandemic-era imagery of individuals wandering amid orange, smoke-filled backdrops that synthesized the reoccurring horror of wildfires on the West Coast and beyond. Such images accompanied headlines of widespread home evacuations, wildlife loss, and blankets of smoke covering entire states.

Now, artists on a local and international scale are using their craft to bring attention to this issue, using a novel formal process — cultivating ash and residue from natural disasters, namely fires, as an actual medium of expression.

Nina Elder, “Devil’s Lake Cut” (2016), charcoal and incinerated industrial pulp waste on paper, 36 inches x 48 inches (courtesy the artist)

Cara Despain’s work, which ranges from public installation to video and painting, confronts complex issues of wildfires, nuclear testing, and land use in her native Utah and beyond. Her latest exhibition, Ashes of Her Enemy, recently on view at new Salt Lake City gallery Current Work, draws from distinct bodies of work to reveal the insidious aspects of Western land exploitation and colonialism.

Upon encountering Despain’s photographs of beautiful landscapes, chosen by the artist for their similarity to famously iconic Western views like Monument Valley, one detects a scarring on the face of each image. Here, Despain devised a frame with a fuse inside that, when lit on one side, ripples across the image, burning the pristine image in its wake. She ignited each of the images at the exhibition opening for an active audience. To Despain, this process is a metaphor for the West’s changing landscape and the fallacy of pristine nature untouched by human intervention.

Cara Despain, “test still no. 1 (Upshot-Knothole — Simon)” (2022), graphite on paper, 15 inches x 22 inches (courtesy Current Work)

Comprising a prominent position in the gallery space is “Parley” (2021), one of Despain’s wildfire paintings. These paintings, large in scale and horizontally configured, are made from the soot of the wildfires that share their name. She crafted the works’ scale and composition to work in dialogue with large-scale Thomas Moran-style landscape paintings. Despain sees her artistic process as a cataloguing or pilgrimage of sorts and has traveled to several sites of wildfires with plans to continue the process indefinitely. Visually, the effect of the dark soot varies in intensity depending on the amount of ash collected and the age of the fire.

While the initial configuration was devoid of text, Despain liked the haunting effect of the fire’s name emerging out from the center of the painting. She calls these choked horizons the “landscape paintings of the new West,” which confront the colonization and economic greed underlying the Ansel Adams mystique of postcard lore.

Despain is not the first artist to incorporate ash into her creative process. Artist Zhang Huan crafts large-scale paintings made from the ash residue of burned incense used in Buddhist temple ceremonies. By foraging ash from various temples around Shanghai, Huan sees the ash as symbolic of “the fulfillment of millions of hopes, dreams, and blessings,” according to his website.

In the months preceding the pandemic, Filipino artist Janina Sanico used ash from the active Taal Volcano in her watercolors, while German artist Heide Hatry incorporated cremated remains into darkly meditative portraits. Artist Zefrey Throwell made headlines in 2013 for using his father’s ashes — along with crystal meth — to pay homage to the debilitating drug addiction that eventually killed his father.

Heide Hatry, Icons in Ash (2006-2020) memorial portrait: “Haven Marie-Ann Ledford” (2020), 14 inches x 11 inches x 3 inches, ash transfer in wooden shadow box (courtesy of Magan Roper, mother of Haven)

In 2017, Hyperallergic reported on the bizarre tale of artist Jill Magid who crafted an engagement ring from the ashes of deceased Mexican architect Luis Barragán.

This fall, the Palo Alto Art Center debuted Fire Transforms, an exhibition featuring several Bay Area artists whose work considers the impact of fire in the area of the country most fraught by wildfire devastation. While in Arizona, wildfires have inspired a variety of artistic reactions to this phenomenon. 

Artist Andrea Dale forages the burnt remnants of plants and humanmade structures left in the aftermath of California wildfires. Her application of ash draws inspiration from East Asian ink wash painting with an application that is at once loose and also sequestered to the bottom quarter of pristine resin-covered panels. New Mexico-based Nina Elder crafts intricately detailed drawings of decimated forests from the incinerated debris of pulp mills to “focus the viewer on the textures and scale of deforestation,” according to her site.

Despain’s wildfire series is as formally motivated as it is personal. Her exhibition visualizes the aesthetic of residue, both familial and environmental. “We often look at big catastrophes but it’s the small stuff that’s going to get us,” she explained in an interview at Current Work of the particulate matter left behind after fires, often invisible yet enormously destructive.

Despain emphasizes that fire is a natural part of environmental ecology, yet the increased prevalence and scale of wildfires is unprecedented and follows a decades-long history of nuclear testing that placed the health of human lives second to government profit.

For Despain, the story of the West’s atomic testing is personal — her mother grew up in Southern Utah’s Cedar City. Due to atomic testing, half of her high school class died early of various radiation-related ailments.

Zhang Huan, “Lamp” (2008), incense ash on linen, 78 3/4 inches x 98 1/2 inches (courtesy Zhang Huan Studio)

Utah has a storied and tragic connection to the nuclear age. The small gambling town of Wendover, Utah once served as an extensive air training site for the 509th Composite Group, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945. The Enola Gay’s hangar, the B-29 aircraft that changed the course of history, is preserved as a historical site and museum in this often overlooked town. 

After the war, expansive areas of government-owned land north of Las Vegas were designated as optimal sites for domestic nuclear testing. In January of 1951, the first atmospheric nuclear testing in the region commenced, setting off incalculably disastrous ramifications for generations to come. As the Cold War commenced, residents of Southern Utah’s Iron County received assurances that atomic testing was being carried out with utmost safety. Yet, in the years to come, those same residents would suffer startlingly high rates of cancer, birth defects, and adverse health issues. Dubbed the “downwinders,” an entire generation became crestfallen due to their geographical proximity “downwind” from the atomic testing.

Neighboring New Mexico holds its own nuclear legacy as the site of the “Trinity” test, the world’s first atomic explosion, which occurred a month before the Enola Gay took her fateful journey to the Asian theater. Studies in subsequent decades revealed inadequate warning to residents living “downwind” of the testing site, increased infant mortality rates, and radiation at levels significantly higher than current safety limits.

Such histories often recede into the realm of whispers, relegated to the annals of history and individual familial tragedy. Yet, they are part of the indelible fabric of the West both past and present that are connected to the environmental calamity unfolding before us. Formally, artistic processes which imbue ash and residue visualize the otherwise infinitesimal markers of this legacy, which has left incalculable misery on generations.

Installation view of Ashes of Her Enemy at Current Work, October 24–Dec 2, 2022 (courtesy Current Work)
Cara Despain, “Parleys Canyon Fire (UT 2021)” (2021), carbon residue from burnt debris on muslin, 6 feet x 9 feet (courtesy Current Work)

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Scotti Hill

Scotti Hill (she/her) is a Utah-based art critic, curator, and lawyer. In addition to teaching art history at Westminster College, she’s a regular contributor to 15 Bytes: Utah’s Art Magazine...

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