In California, and certainly within the north state, fire is a visceral reality and natural process of our landscape.
The subject of fire opens a wide range of possibilities for an artist. In a new exhibit at Turtle Bay Exploration Park, three dynamic Northern California artists explore a range of themes related to the topic.
David Gentry’s glass creations are incorporated into his sculptures (photos by Harvey Spector).
The exciting and diverse show, "Formed By Fire," opened Saturday and runs through Jan. 9 in the main museum building at Turtle Bay. The show is free to Turtle Bay members. Entry to the museum is $14 for adults, $10 for children and seniors. Turtle Bay is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Longtime Shasta College art instructor John Harper conceived the idea for the exhibit and he’s displaying work alongside Redding mixed media artists Colleen Barry and David Gentry.
Harper literally used fire to burn images on paper. His imagery of trees and landscape ranges from engulfed by flame, to scorched aftermath, to regeneration.
John Harper burns an image onto paper.
"By burning the paper I attempt to bring to life those images that have long been burnt into my memory," Harper wrote in a statement for the show. "When making the work I begin with a simple drawing, often based on sketches or photographs of abstract patterns or shadows. I then begin to elaborate the patterns by burning the shapes into the paper with a torch."
Harper sometimes combines watercolor on the paper to enhance the images he’s illuminating with his "pyrograph" technique.
"I like the browns I’m getting, these golden browns," he said. "Someone told me they look like tobacco juice."
Barry approaches the subject of fire from a variety of angles. She has created sculptures that are influenced by the blackened fragments and lingering smoldering coals left behind by fire. There’s a compelling fossilized frond and a richly textured caldera that harkens a volcano crater.
Colleen Barry’s many techniques for making art include the use of a chainsaw.
Barry also explores where man-made meets the natural world with her fantastic geodes, created from hardware, machine parts and recycled components. Barry, whose mosaic work is well established in Redding (the children’s fountain in Turtle Bay’s gardens, Redding City Hall’s sculpture park bench), plays to one of her strong suits with the geodes. They’re dense and gorgeous just like their real-life rock companions, but the found objects offer up so many other layers of interpretation and wonder. Among them are firey subjects like "Mars" and "Venus."
Barry’s found wood sculpture, "The Stickman’s Warning," is a haunting image that stirs memories of forms seen in trees in the natural world. She’s also showing an assortment of vessel pieces that evoke folk art memory jars, reliquaries and cremation urns.
If all the imagery and metaphor weren’t enough in Harper and Barry’s work, enter Gentry, whose sculptures explore man’s collision with the natural world.
David Gentry is well versed in using fire to create art.
Gentry, who teaches ceramics, sculpture, glass art, and world art and history at Shasta College, often fuses industrial and organic materials in his pieces. The results are stunning. Gentry’s sculpture "Tree" (cast bronze and steel) symbolizes what a tree might look like in a museum of the future, just like a dinosaur skeleton does in today’s halls. His "Bottle Tree" (blown glass, welded steel and paint) was inspired partly by the facade of forests along highways with clear cuts behind them. While living in Georgia, Gentry also observed strange trees with colorful glass bottles covering them. These bottle trees, with their roots in Africa, are supposed to catch bad spirits before they can enter the house.
Many of Gentry’s sculptures are literally formed by fire as well as informed by fire.
"Local catastrophes such as the fires that take place frequently in this region, as well as natural disasters such as the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano in Iceland and completely man-made predicaments such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico might be reflected in the work," Gentry wrote in his artist statement. "Ultimately, all (of my pieces in the show) combine and reflect my interests in philosophy, scientific observation, fantasy, symbolism, and humor, and express my views on our environmental predicament in the Post-Industrial Era."
Harper’s giant images on paper combined with Barry and Gentry’s variety of three-dimensional sculptures make for a rich, diverse, and yet, cohesive show. It’s easy to get lost in the design and metaphor of one piece, and yet there are dozens of them.
Set aside a good amount of time to wonder the show and contemplate the many themes.
Harper, who has displayed work across the U.S., including the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, the Hermitage Museum in Nashville, and the Takada Gallery in San Francisco, has been fascinated with the imagery of far Northern California for most of his life. His father’s family settled in the Whitmore area in the 1860s and his mother’s family were of Wintu descent, having lived in this area for generations.
One element that hasn’t changed in all that time is the story of fire.
"It’s exciting to have a theme related to this area and then to have three artists working individually on it," Harper said. "Basically it’s like walking into a forest."
Jim Dyar is a news, arts and entertainment journalist for A News Cafe and the former arts and entertainment editor for the Record Searchlight’s D.A.T.E. section. Jim is also a songwriter and leader of the Jim Dyar Band. He lives in Redding. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .