Photo by Matt Frank

Is there a different way to reach out to people when relaying our wildfire message — a more personalized message, a message that tells a story, a message that doesn’t come from a “fire expert”? How do we get people to “own it,” to see their role in helping their communities be more resilient to wildfire? These are the questions I had been asking myself when I came up with this “crazy” idea to do an art exhibition about the concept of living with wildfire. The idea stemmed from multiple community-oriented purposes — personalizing our relationship with wildfire, creating a venue for local artists to display and sell their artworks, and increasing traffic for local business owners where the artwork will be displayed. I was also inspired by the community-based wildfire art project that our FAC partners in Flagstaff – the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership – conducted in previous years.

In Ely, Minnesota the Donald G. Gardner Trust Fund annually offers an artistic project grant that benefits our community. My idea was a little out of the box, but with the assistance of my colleagues at Dovetail Partners, our proposal was accepted and we received a grant to do an art exhibition called “Living with Wildfire.” The exhibit seeks to highlight experiences and reflections about wildfire from residents’ perspectives through two- and three-dimensional artworks.

We began by creating a Call to Artists flyer. I shared the draft with some of my artist friends to critique. Their input was fantastic! First, get rid of the fire jargon. They wanted a message that they could relate to, that stirred their emotions; something that was more personalized. A common theme emerged of why we live here – the beauty of our woods. How will and has fire affected that relationship? That was it!

Boundary Waters Wilderness. Credit: Matt Frank

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Credit: Matt Frank

They also stated that they knew nothing about wildfire and hadn’t given it much thought despite the fact that less than three years ago half of our town was evacuated because of a wildfire. And the year before, the Pagami Creek wildfire had burned across 100,000 acres of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness just outside of town. So, I decided to host an informal artists’ gathering to talk about wildfire. Not a presentation, but a communal discussion.

Even though I wanted the discussion to be informal, I felt like I needed to have someone there who knew wildfire, its history, the ecology, the experience and the story. I asked the advice of my new District Ranger, Douglas “Gus” Smith, since I knew his background was forest ecology and wildland fire. Through our conversation, I realized Gus is not only knowledgeable, but also very passionate about all aspects of wildfire. I asked if he would come to our informal artists’ gathering and he agreed. We felt it might be helpful to create a one-page resource page about wildfire. He suggested books and personal narratives, I added Ely-specific wildfire resources and national wildfire websites, and my colleague Matt Frank compiled the information and developed a great resource page.

At our artists’ gathering I asked each person to talk about their experiences with and thoughts about wildfire. Each story was very unique. Then Gus spoke and reflected on everyone’s experiences while adding his own. The exchange was more than I could have imagined – honest, heartfelt and informative all at once.

Since we are a tourist town and want to reach both locals and seasonal visitors, we decided that instead of doing a one-night exhibition we will display the artwork the entire month of August. The artwork will be displayed in various businesses around town and will be for sale, with the proceeds going directly to the artists.

Living with Wildfire Art Exhibit Flier UpdatedMy outreach efforts have included posting flyers around town, developing newspaper ads, sending personal emails, posting exhibit information on local art group and business websites, creating a Facebook event page, and holding one on one conversations. Artists are excited and want to participate; my expectations are high. I also have many businesses lined up to be venue sites. I came up with the idea to do an Art Crawl for the opening night event, a new idea in our little town. I also plan to develop and distribute art exhibit brochure maps.

The deadline for artist proposals is drawing to a close and I have a total of seven submissions. I had expected more, but I have read the proposals and am impressed with the how solid they all are. The proposals include a variety of mediums — watercolors, a textile piece, a scratchboard, a collage, a poem, and a sculpture. Each artist’s statement of intent tells his/her personal story about how wildfire has affected them and sends a personal message about how they “live with wildfire.” Our wildfire message rings loud and true, reflected in the eyes of an audience that might not always think about it, in a visual language that we all can understand.

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