Wildfire art can create beauty out of tragedy

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Robert Nesladek carves wood. He works in a sawdust-filled studio behind his house in Arvada, which he has owned for 47 years. 
 
He uses two wood lathes to carve out bowls, vases and other works of art from wood charred by wildfires. One of those lathes was handed down from his grandfather to his dad, then to his uncle and now to him. 
 
He started working with wood after he quit drinking.
 
“I had to find something to keep my hands busy,” he said. 
 
Out of a devastating event, wildfire art aims to create something beautiful — a vase, a painting or a poem. 
Nesladek transforms the wood burned by wildfires into beautiful shapes. He said burned wood takes on different characteristics because of the intense heat that dries out the log.
 
“It puts a lot of that charcoal gray color into the wood, and it just kind of runs through it,” he said. “It just is really nice to work with.” 
 
Starting out, the wood is filthy. 
 
“As soon as you touch it, you think ‘I’m not going to even mess with that stuff. It’s just nasty,’” he said. “But as soon as you get the bark off, it’s clean inside, and it’s dry.” 
 
Nesladek turns the wood on the lathe quickly and shapes it with different chisels and blades. Once the burned charcoal coating the wood is removed, he starts to mold the center of the wood that endured intense heat but wasn’t directly touched the fire. After he reaches the shape he wants, he applies a clear stain. 
 
“It amazes me how something so nasty, so devastating, can turn into something so beautiful,” Nesladak said. 
 
Painting from within 
 
Creating art from wildfires can also help begin the healing process after such a tragedy. 
 
For Alissa Davies, of Boulder, that involves intuitively painting emotions onto canvas.
 
After the Marshall Fire, Davies said she and her community felt an extreme sense of loss and fear. 
 
“We’ve had these wildfires in our community, and every time the wind blows, we all feel this kind of collective trauma,” she said. “What’s going to happen to this place?” 
 
Davies describes herself as an intuitive artist — stepping up to a canvas with no idea of what the end result will be. She looks inward to get in touch with her feelings and then paints. 
 
After the Marshall Fire, she returned to her studio to begin addressing her emotions and out came Firescape 1, 2 and 3. 
 
“We all are very affected by external events that happen around us,” she said. “(Painting) is just a highly therapeutic process for me.” 
 
She said fires come with an immense, intense energy that she channeled into the paintings. She said she experienced those feelings even though
she didn’t lose a house to the fire, but instead, she channeled the hardships of those who did. 
 
She champions art therapy programs in Boulder and surrounding communities where people can learn to get in touch with their emotions and put them onto paper. 
Those programs give people space to freely create art. She touches on her semester in college at the Art Institute of Chicago where it wasn’t so free. 
 
Her painting classes created an intense environment with critiques and competition from professors and students. 
 
The art therapy classes were different, she said, in that they created a more encouraging environment. 
“There’s that level of acceptance,” Davies said. “Instead of thinking art is for the precious few, it gives people the view that we all really know what to do with paint. It might not be pretty, and it might not look like what’s in our head, but that’s OK, and it’s better that way.”
 
For those affected by the Marshall Fire, art therapy can begin those conversations, both verbal and not. 
 
“It’s always important to talk it out, but I think those nonverbal ways of expressing are equally as powerful and helpful,” Davies said. 
 
Sometimes, it just takes a few breaths and a blank canvas. 
 
To get in touch with her emotions before she paints, Davies meditates. While painting, she turns off her mind and moves very quickly. 
 
“I’m constantly turning my canvas,” she said. “You can click over into that flow state, you know that feeling of when time kind of gets weird, it’s suspended. It’s bliss.”
 
Burning wood 
 
Radha Marcum of Boulder started writing at age 7 on her mother’s typewriter. Fast forward to today, and she’s a poet creating poems rooted in ecological, social and personal landscapes of the American West. 
 
“I grew up in the West, so wildfire has always really been in my awareness,” she said. 
 
In 2019, she began writing more about wildfires. The burning of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris triggered her new topic.
 
She visited the cathedral with her husband within weeks of the roof burning. Replacing the ceilings, made of oak beams from Europe’s ancient forests, remains almost impossible because those forests are long gone, she said.
 
“At the same time that we were losing this magnificent human-made structure, we were also losing nature’s cathedral,” she said. “I think of the old growth forests in North America.”
 
It reminded Marcum of visiting the Redwood forests in Northern California. 
 
“Thinking about the history of people who have been in these places, whether it’s a cathedral or a forest, there’s a sense of continuity, and so when you lose a forest or you lose a cathedral, you’re losing that sense of continuity with ancestors and which people would come before you,” she said. 
 
Hence, she started writing about wildfire, and the
Marshall Fire made the topic even more personal for her. 
 
“When it happens in your backyard, and when you’re watching the effects in real time, that I think is profound,” she said. “I think in art, and in poetry, in our writing, we have the opportunity to meditate on what is happening right here, right in front of us.”
 
For her, that can mean looking at specific changes in her surroundings. One example she points to is a poem about a plum tree in her backyard that she moved inside due to the drought. 
 
Another poem looks at smoke drifts and ashes falling in her backyard. Those ashes, she said, are forests, people’s homes or wildlife. Some float in from other places. 
 
“There’s a connection between different parts of the country, between you and the landscape, between the ecology, the trees, the wildlife,” she said. “We’re all affected by these events, whether or not they’re burning our structures, or they’re burning the forest.”
 
Marcum sees her poems as an invitation to readers to recognize the events happening around them. 
 
“(It’s about) connecting with what’s really going on, rather than being sort of numb and overwhelmed by the news or by statistics,” she said.

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