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The power of helping hands

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By Katy Korkos

“Touched by Fire: Hands that help, hands that create” is the perfect title for the exhibit at Mesa Public Library commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Cerro Grande fire. The show speaks to the power of nature to renew itself and the power of community to rebuild. The show features artwork that looks at the fire itself, the changes to the environment and the renewal of the forest, along with an impressive “Wall of Volunteers” to recognize the huge effort by thousands of people to restore what was lost.

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The exhibit has been created by the Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC), which was founded the same year as the Cerro Grande fire swept through the town.

PEEC has become a local institution in its 10 years of operation.

Los Alamos had celebrated international Earth Day for many years, but as soon as PEEC was formed, it became the organization that puts on the celebration and the current exhibit will serve as the lead-in to the Earth Day celebration on April 24. The Earth Day Festival will feature displays by community groups of their Earth-friendly products and practices and their information about the environment on the Pajarito Plateau. Renaissance entertainment group Clan Tynker will perform. The festival will be held at PEEC, located at 3540 Orange St., just down from Los Alamos High School.

The exhibition space at the library holds more than 50 pieces, some of which are works of art and others which are artifacts from the fire. Many of the pieces combine the two, creating art from materials that were altered by fire.

Forest ecologist and environmental artist Fairley Barnes creates work about the strength and fragility of trees. Barnes has three sculptural pieces in the show, all of which address her understanding of the forest environment, the role of fire in the ecology, and even the political aspects of the worldwide discussion of global warming.

Abstract artists Connie Pacheco and Sheridan Brown both incorporated burnt materials in their work. Pacheco has created both paintings and monoprinted collages to hang in the show, while Brown’s work is primarily painted. Artist Tatjana Rosev writes about her work, “The painting depicts St. Barbara, the patron saint of firefighters and explosives experts, with the symbols she is typically portrayed with — a tower and a lightning bolt. The bark that surrounds the center canvas comes from trees that were burned in the fire.” Rosev had just moved to the area in 2000.

“The Cerro Grande Fire occurred not even one year after I’d moved to Los Alamos from Europe and it changed my life. Having come so close to losing my house and possessions, I decided to get trained as a wildland firefighter.”

Many local artists felt compelled to create work as a response to the overwhelming emotions they felt as the fire burned and also as a way to comfort people in their loss. Weaver Johanna Feliz Boudreau, a Chimayo weaver whose home was burned, created a rug called “Despues del Fuego” to offer hope to her family. The rug is mostly woven in a drab brown, but has shots of color to remind us that beauty will be restored. There are also several quilts in the show, as quilters responded in a similar way, attempting to offer comfort.

Mountain Elementary School was among the hardest hit neighborhoods in 2000, and Mountain School teachers worked with their students to help put the fire in perspective. One of the first pieces people see as they enter the gallery space is a quilt made by the students in Liz Martineau’s class. The students recorded their thoughts about the fire on pieces of cloth and combined those with hand-sewn squares of material, tying the whole quilt together with green yarn to symbolize renewal and growth. Also in the show is a panoramic collage of photographs of the forest near the school.

Mountain School students were also among the thousands of volunteers who worked to plant seed balls, repair trails and prevent erosion. “The Wall of Volunteers” is a visible demonstration of how the community pulled together to help nature recover. Literally hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours were logged by people who were motivated by a desire to “do something.”

Terry Foxx is in a unique position to tell the stories of the Cerro Grande fire. As an environmental scientist, her professional life gave her the chance to study the ecology of fire. As a storyteller, she has explained the cycle of fire to children and adults, with her books “The Forest and the Fire” and “Out of the Ashes: a Story of Natural Recovery.” As an artist and illustrator, she has illustrated the children’s book and created freestanding work as well.

Shortly after the fire, Foxx put together a book of stories told to her by members of her church and she titled that book “Lest We Forget.” To commemorate the 10th  anniversary of the fire, she has re-interviewed many of those same people and added several more interviews, compiling them all into a new book called “Touched by Fire.”

She is careful to say that these are not her own words in the book. She has transcribed her conversations with people of all ages and from all walks of life in the new book, and she has let people guide the stories themselves.

Some of the original drawings from her earlier books will be seen in the gallery in April, along with her side-by-side photographs that show the forest’s recovery from 2000 to 2009. The new book is at the printer and will be ready for the show’s opening from 5-7:30 p.m. April 8. The opening reception will feature a poetry reading by the Nuclear Poets from 6:15-6:30 p.m. as well as a talk by Volunteer Task Force leader Craig Martin at 6:30 p.m. Refreshments will be served and many of the artists will be on hand to talk about their work.

“Touched by Fire” will hang in the gallery throughout the month of April. The gallery is open during regular library hours, every day of the week.

For more information about PEEC, go to www.PajaritoEEC.org

For more information about the Los Alamos County Library, go to www.losalamosnm.us/library.