New perspectives: FOREST FIRE exhibit strikes past-future ‘equilibrium’

Interpretive exhibit weds ancient indigenous approach to forest stewardship with current fire mitigation efforts.

The Truckee Community Rec Center’s newest art exhibit features a forest — inside.

According to Nevada County Arts Council Executive Director Eliza Tudor, a path of trees hanging overhead directs the public through a 13,000-year timeline, wedding an indigenous approach to environmental stewardship to government agencies’ current efforts to fortify forests through controlled burns.

The exhibit is called FOREST⇌FIRE. It’s at the recreation center in Truckee, 10981 Truckee Way, and debuts Dec. 10.

“One enters the exhibition as though emerging from the last ice age along with the first indigenous peoples,” Tudor said. “The forests are healthy and thriving with an abundance of diversity and large, old-growth trees. As one moves through the installation, one experiences the forest as if through the eyes of the ages, from health to a period of great damage.”

For the next six months, the rec center will greet residents and tourists alike with an interpretive exhibit explaining the forest’s inevitable — and healthy — relationship with fire. The final chapter of the four-part exhibit offers tangible solutions to California’s increasingly smokey skies, Tudor said.

Painting the fixtures that will light the FOREST⇌FIRE exhibition.
Submitted to the Sierra Sun

“One leaves feeling invested and hopeful — inspired by the marriage of science and industry, innovation and creativity,” Tudor said, adding that, hopefully, attendees will curb enough fear to appreciate fire’s utility.

Tudor said the California Arts Council provided $150,000 through its Creative California Communities grant to facilitate a partnership between the local arts council, Truckee Donner Recreation & Park District and UC Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station. The grant and grantee were focused “on the principle of creative place-making.”

“By definition, it demands that one sector speak to another, that art does not exist for art’s sake, but that the arts speak with other sectors such as the local businesses and governance,” Tudor said.

FOREST⇌FIRE included the efforts of even more stakeholders with backgrounds in science, industry and academia.

“It’s an incredible blend of different partners and different sectors coming together to share a way of looking at the history of and offering one possible future for our forest,” Tudor said.

The result of the multidimensional project is in an art installation that binds native people’s generational knowledge with science-based solutions to address catastrophic wildfires.

Part of the bind involves de-stigmatizing fire, Tudor said. The word aloud — “fire” — triggers some Californians, Tudor said, especially given the loss experienced in the relatively recent Paradise, Dixie and Caldor fires.

Tudor said society needs to collectively dispel the fear associated with fire in order to help forest ecosystems achieve balance and properly steward wild spaces.

“We need to reprogram ourselves to have a healthier relationship to fire, and how it can be used to mitigate very catastrophic fires that take place when we don’t manage the forest,” Tudor said.

Tudor said part of redeveloping the understanding of fire means thinking creatively about the past, present and future. In the case of FOREST⇌FIRE, painting, textiles, beadwork, sculpture, and photography inspire and bear witness to cultural transformation.

“Each of the 18 artists will share the story of our forests from a different perspective, in much the same way that the many partners engaged in FOREST⇌FIRE experience it,” Tudor said. “We feel that among the many artworks to be unveiled, members of the public will find pieces that speak directly to their own understanding, while others will introduce brand new perspectives and possibilities.”


Berkeley’s Sagehen Field Station is located in the Central Sierra Nevada, north of Truckee. According to the station’s website, the research and teaching facility located inside the 9,000-acre Sagehen Experimental Forest is cooperatively owned and managed in a partnership between the University of California, the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station and the Tahoe National Forest.

Tudor said the Lewellyns, Heather and Michael, have worked for years with the Berkeley Field Station because of the university’s “extraordinary artist in residency program, built upon the premise that creativity allows us to approach problems that complement and expand upon science, reaching very diverse audiences and creating emotional connections.”

Heather Lewellyn said educators and students at the Sagehen Field Station began investigating fire and post-fire effects on the forest in 2003.

Since, partners across agencies — including timber companies, nonprofits and environmental organizations — have been able to participate in a prescription for forest restoration, Heather Lewellyn said. Namely, reducing the fuel loads in the forest to reduce the incidents of catastrophic fire.

According to Heather Lewellyn, the threat of catastrophic forest fires grew significantly because of the clear-cutting — a logging practice where all trees in a designated area are cut down uniformly, commonly used by western settlers in the 1800s.

“The density comes from clear-cutting basically,” Heather Lewellyn said. “You get these very dense forests, all the same age.”

Heather Lewellyn said while the project points to a healthy, more biologically diverse past, it makes a point to shine a light toward a healthy future.

“We’re not here to blame people or point fingers,” Heather Lewellyn said. “Regular landowners, forest agencies — they learn about forest processes over time. Their understanding of the forest ecology was a bit lacking, but they’re starting to understand that forests are collaborative.”

Heather Lewellyn said the collaboration required is biological, chemical, social and political.

“Half the forests exist underground in fungal networks that pass nutrients between species,” Heather Lewellyn explained. “So the above ground forest feeds the underground part of the network and they pass nutrients among each other. If you clear-cut, you cut off both nutrients to above and below ground and you get a lot of weak, young trees.”

Indigenous people understood the ecology because they considered themselves a part of it, Heather Lewellyn said, but that knowledge was lost with the arrival of settlers to the area.

Michael Lewellyn said the couple’s professional background in publishing shows, as the exhibit may feel like a larger-than-life size magazine to some.

“The visuals draw viewers to the written content,” Llewellyn said, adding that there are 17 essays that accompany 18 of the art pieces feature. “People can visit each chapter of the story at their leisure

Tudor said the project’s producers know that 5,000 to 6,000 people set foot in the recreation center each month. She hopes the projects message — is received by residents and tourists to the area.

Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun and The Union, a sister publication of the Sun. She can be reached at


Who: Nevada County Arts Council, California Arts Council, California Humanities, Truckee Arts Alliance, Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, University of Nevada, Reno, Tahoe Truckee Excellence in Education Foundation, Sierra Watershed Education Partnerships, Truckee Public Art Commission, East River PR, Truckee Tahoe Airport District and Mountain Forge


Where: Truckee Community Recreation Center, 10981 Truckee Way

When: Debuts Dec. 10

Why: The exhibit addresses (1) The causes and consequences of catastrophic fire in the forest. (2) The forest’s role in safeguarding watersheds. (3) Its unparalleled value in mitigating looming Climate Change. (4) How it can be saved.

How: Through 18 contributing art pieces from animator and cartoonist Christopher Baldwin, visual artists Judith Lowry, Erika Osborne, Tahiti Pehrson, Elyse Pignolet, Nancy Mintz, Sandow Birk, Tiffany Bozic, Sarah Coleman, Nina Elder, Todd Gilens, Elisabett Gudmann, Sarah L. Smith, Andie Thrams, Cedra Wood, textile artist Jorie Emory, beading artist Jessa Rae Growing Thunder, poet Indigo Moor and essays from writers Paula Henson and Jonathon Keats

“Dao-Lulelek,” oil painting by Judith Lowry on display at the FOREST⇌FIRE exhibit.
Erika Osborne’s “On The Edge of the Sublime,” on display at the FOREST⇌FIRE exhibit.
Production on the new exhibit.
Before and after: The stage is set for the FOREST⇌FIRE exhibit at Truckee Community Recreation Center.

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