In days like these, when the sun glows an alarming orange, and air is choked with smoke and ash that burns your eyes and prickles your throat, it’s hard to reconcile what Anna Kaye’s drawings have always strived to remind us about wildfires: that they are deadly and, no doubt, worrisome, but they are also natural and necessary.
Her charcoal renderings capture scenes of fiery destruction in the Colorado forests, powerful flames ravaging acres of trees and brush, devastating wildlife habitats and sending plumes of contaminants into the sky. Kaye has a unique, sometimes astounding, ability to contain, on small pieces of paper, the vastness of our environment during its angriest moments.
If you go
“Heatwave,” recent drawings by Anna Kaye, continues through Oct. 25 at Sandra Phillips Gallery, 47 West 11th Ave. Info at 303-931-2991 or thesandraphillipsgallery.com. Because of the current pandemic, visitors are asked to make an appointment in advance.
But she also draws beyond that drama, into the era after a fire and through the years that follow to show us the crucial role those events play in keeping our forests and the animals that inhabit them thriving. Fires clear away nature’s clutter, the ambitious overgrowth that would be unstoppable without mass destruction. Fires allow plants and animals, and even people, to regenerate, to continue.
Kaye’s current solo exhibition, titled “Heatwave,” at Sandra Phillips Gallery in the Golden Triangle, portrays that narrative succinctly and eloquently in less than a dozen pieces. It’s full of tension, but also hope.
There’s an opening chapter of sorts in “Unfurl,” the largest piece in the show, which captures a wide section of mountain range in some wooded environment. The earthly terrain is peaceful, full of the magnificent shapes and shadows that make nature so alluring.
But “Unfurl” is an ominous scene because above those hills, the sky has begun to tremble, clouds have gathered and lightning is striking, and every Westerner knows what comes next: sparks and flames and widespread extermination.
It’s a drawing in motion, and Kaye underscores that with some low-tech special effects: She uses a projector to overlay onto the piece subtle flickers of light that evoke the strikes of lightning as they start to pierce the sky and connect to the ground. In a sense, it’s the calm before the storm.
The wreckage does come in other works that continue the story. The remarkable drawing “Heatwave” is a close-up of flames engulfing a section of low-lying scrub. Kaye’s exquisite capture of dancing flame consuming delicate brush has the feel of photorealism, even though it is presented in the monochromatic hues of charcoal.
In another piece, “One-fifth of a Second,” she pulls back to show the full extent of fiery ruin. We see, from an aerial view, flames taking large swaths of land and vegetation. The is the sort of helicopter view of forest fires we often see on television.
It’s important to understand that with these drawings, Kaye means to show the duality of a wildfire’s personality. There’s the obvious part: that lightning sets the earth aflame, “starting 1,250 fires annually in Colorado and over 20,000 fires per year in the United States,” as she points out in the artist notes that accompany the exhibit.
But it is also an “essential part of the nitrogen cycle on Earth, providing micronutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that plants use to thrive.”
That concept is carried out through the remainder of the exhibit, which captures the natural world post-fire, sometimes in literal terms, other times symbolically.
“Charcoal Perch” depicts a quail, a Northern Bobwhite to be specific, roosting on a burned-out tree stump. Kaye eliminates the background scenery here, presenting only the bird and the stump on a pure white background.
That trick serves to highlight the relationship between the animal and the dead vegetation and that relationship turns out to have great meaning. The Bobwhite is one of many species that feed off of the ruins of natural “disturbances,” as Kaye calls them, finding seeds and insects in the charred wood and bare ground left behind. Fire is good for quail, so much so that fire suppression, now common as a preservation strategy for development, has forced the species into decline.
Kaye shows us more of the plants and animals that benefit from large-scale fires. In the paintings “Equipoise I” and “Equipoise II,” she presents woodpeckers who gather insects and foliage from fire zones to consume and construct nests. She presents scarlet globemallow, the wildflower whose rhizomes grow beneath the soil and are freed to rise up when the ground is cleared. The globemallow’s fresh shoots serve as food for wildlife returning the area.
Kaye’s work might seem overly optimistic, especially as fires rage across California and Oregon and into Colorado; these are unpleasant times, as the ash that collects on our window sills doesn’t let us forget.
RELATED: Find the latest updates on Colorado’s wildfires here
But it’s based on science, and that keeps it grounded. Kaye notes clearly that climate change is drastically increasing the number and severity of fires. The careful balance of growth, fire and regeneration that have served to save the forest for centuries could fall apart.
And she draws that idea, as well. The piece “First in Light” is far removed from the forest, depicting a large hourglass with what appears to be ash falling from the top through the tiny opening and into the bottom. The piece evokes the passing of time, particularly the time it takes for the natural world to grow, burn and recover. When things go as nature has planned, the cycle runs its course and then the glass is turned over so that it can run it again. But too much ash on either end can upset the pattern and turn the odds against nature following its sustainable plan.
That sort of tension underlays everything in the exhibition. There is hope in each piece, even the ones that appear the most violent. A viewer just has to spend some time to find it, to see the links between the present and the future, to be patient and, perhaps most important, to hold on to the love we all proclaim to have for nature, even when it seems to betray us. Fire is an assault on trees and wildlife; it’s also a test of our devotion to the planet.
That viewers spend the time to see this concept, to understand and appreciate it, is testimony to Kaye’s talents. Her drawings captivate as much as any mountain vista. They invite you linger on the scenery, and offer new discoveries as you invest the time in looking. She appears to draw darks and lights, but she’s really drawing darkness and light.
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