Finding beauty in fire

“We wanted to create a forum and a space to tell the stories of individual people, their communities and their interaction with wildfire,” says Sharon Roberts, project manager, educator and writer.

For the past two years, Roberts and Megan Majewski have been researching and learning about wildfires and their impact on forests.

“It’s really easy for people to forget that forest fires are really beneficial to the ecosystem; people see a forest fire and automatically think it’s a bad thing,” says Majewski, a pop-surreal artist.

Their exhibit Fire Followers, opening at UBC’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum, tells the story of the forest and its relationship with fire through visual art as well as poetry, photos and written work.

How it all started

The beauty of the fireweed bursting through the blackness with charcoal collected from the trees. | Photo courtesy of Megan Majewski

“The project came about very organically from our friendship,” says Roberts.

When Majewski was looking for plant life to draw, she came across a picture of flowers after a forest fire and thought it was beautiful. After talking about it with Roberts, they realized they both had connections to fire and wildfire through communities and areas they knew that were affected by them. Majewski’s brother is also a wildfire firefighter.

The two decided to go on a road trip to visit those communities to learn more.

“The more we talked about it, the more we realized how much we’re both passionate and curious about this subject,” says Majewski.

Connecting to community

“We found that the more people we talked to, the more people had personal stories to tell,” says Roberts.

They spoke with people who, when cleaning dead brush off their property, revealed a carpet of wildflowers that had grown underneath and learned about the term fire archeology, where fire-burned ground helps uncover artifacts.

They also learned about how forest fires impact the economy as people often leave during it because of work and might not come back afterwards.

“The effects are so wide reaching and continue beyond just the time of the fire; it affects communities in a big way so creating dialogue, building bridges and telling stories is really important,” says Roberts.

A different perspective

“We learned so much and we feel like other people can learn if we’re able to show them some of the benefits and beauty through our artwork,” says Majewski.

Through their art forms and storytelling, Majewski and Roberts hope to open up the conversation so more people can learn about forest fires from a different perspective.

While visiting fire-stricken areas, Majewski also gathered charcoal from burnt trees, took it back to her studio to grind up and used it as pigment in her paintings.

“I see it as a way to immortalize the burnt forest so that we’ll remember them long after the new forest has regrown and used the ashes to feed its next life cycle,” says Majewski.

Starting the fire

“We think fire is bad, but it’s important to the health of the forest. Forests have been burning for all eternity; they know how to look after themselves,” says Roberts.

While researching forest fires, Roberts and Majewski spoke with Indigenous communities that showed them the difference between a controlled forest fire and a wild one.

They learned that when you keep fires from burning the result is forests that look healthy but are too dense so water can’t get into the soil.

Roberts says this eliminates the forest’s ability to regenerate after a wildfire. A controlled burn is designed to help the forest do what it does naturally – it clears off dead debris allowing sunlight and water to get through so the forest can regrow.

“It’s really about changing the perception of what a healthy forest looks like, giving voice to people to tell their stories and turning that into a body of work that can continue to grow,” says Roberts.

Due to the pandemic, the exhibition Fire Followers is expected to go online, but they are hoping that it will open to the public in a safe way at some point.

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