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. Her work is now being revealed to the community at an opening reception Saturday, Oct. 24 from 306 p.m. at the Caetani Gallery, titled When was your last wildfire?
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 the 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 blazed 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 the 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 rangeland 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.”
The billboard is visible heading North on Highway 97, near Tomasket Road, and will be on display until March 2021.