Despite the devastation wildfires can cause, they are necessary and natural to the environment, as Liz Toohey-Wiese has learned.
Wildfires sparked an interest in the North Vancouver artist after the summers of 2017 and 2018 when Vancouver had wildfire smoke drifting into the city.
“I’ve always been a landscape painter, but wildfires started to take up a lot of space in my mind when I was making paintings of places in B.C.,” she said.
Currently in Vernon as the Caetani Cultural Center’s FreshAir! Artist in Residence, Toohey-Wiese has been working on a series of paintings of wildfires since 2017.
In August, her painting titled Come Back Soon! (2019) was mounted on a billboard on Highway 97 just north of Vernon, towards Falkland.
“Last summer changed my whole idea about wildfires. I moved to a community on Northern Vancouver Island where lots of people work in forestry. I came to that project with one idea, ‘Oh, wildfires are bad, and climate change is making them more frequent and more extreme’. But last summer I spent a lot of time talking to people who work in forestry and in wildfire fighting, and I learned that wildfires are necessary and natural in the environment. In fact, a century of fire suppression may have contributed to the drastic increase in intensity of wildfires.”
That series carried forward to this summer. She wanted to come to a place in B.C. that had been more affected by wildfires than the coast, and to be able to visit places wildfires had passed through in past years to see how the landscape was renewing itself.
While driving down Highway 97 to visit the Falkland fire, a wildfire that had come through in 2003, she saw a blank billboard.
“I had painted a series of postcards last year that took tourist slogans like ‘Wish You Were Here!’ and ‘Miss You Already!’ and put them on top of a painting of a wildfire. I was thinking about how tourism and forestry in B.C. both rely on landscape, and also I thought about those slogans themselves. Who are they pointed to? And what if we pointed those statements to nature itself?”
Now, one of her paintings has been blown up to be 20 feet long, with the slogan “Come Back Soon!” emblazoned on a fire burning underneath it.
“I thought it would be great to see it as a billboard. You might see a sign saying ‘Come Back Soon!’ when leaving lots of small towns in B.C., and I thought that slogan works in a lot of different ways. Are you asking tourists to come back? Are you asking the trees and the plants to come back?”
In her research, Toohey-Wiese learned about the history of First Nations prescribed burning.
“It’s something a lot of communities are talking about now, and BC Wildfire is doing some really amazing collaborations with First Nations communities. There were thousands of years of First Nations peoples burning the landscape when it was safe to do so in the winter months, both to bring berry bushes back, and create range land for hunting deer. There was an understanding of the importance of having a relationship with fire, and it’s fascinating to see how that knowledge is coming back.”
Being in this Okanagan also offered her a proximity to fire she hasn’t experienced before.
“I went to Penticton the other week to see the Mount Christie fire, and that was actually the first time I saw a wildfire up close. I was so in awe both of the power of the fire, and of the precision of the helicopters and planes that were keeping the fire away from the houses. My paintings have always been based on photos from news reports and historical images, so it was very powerful to watch a wildfire in person.
“They are of course devastating,” she said. “I think of the people whose houses burn down and what a terrible loss that must be. Wildfires are also necessary to keep our landscapes healthy, and many wildfires are caused naturally by lightning. I also think about how they are a metaphor for other losses in our lives, but wildfires create environments for flora and fauna to return quickly, so there’s the aspect of renewal and rejuvenation inherent in them as well.”
Along with being an artist, Toohey-Wiese is a professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, where she teaches drawing and painting. A Faculty of Arts Excellence and Advancement Fund grant from Kwantlen Polytechnic University paid for the billboard, which has been rented for six months.
“My budget was of course smaller than a lot of businesses would have for advertising, so I was so happy that my university saw this to be a worthwhile project to support. My hope is that having this piece of public art on display for the next few months will create an interesting dialogue with the communities in this area.”
The billboard is visible heading North on Highway 97, near Tomasket Road, and will be on display until March 2021.
Toohey-Wiese will have an exhibition of her wildfire paintings at the Caetani Cultural Center Oct. 23-25, as she will continue to stay in the area until November.