Environmental sculptor Shan Wells grew up in southwestern Colorado, immersed in nature and the immediate landscape -- which has become his artistic medium -- all his life. It shows in the work: In Wells's visual world, stones, leaves or flower parts might be arranged in patterns on the ground, sandstone slabs nestled in the crook of a tree, or burnt piñon twigs affixed to wooden blocks on a wall. But what happens when an artist's ongoing source of inspiration undergoes radical and unexpected changes within a few weeks' time? That's just what this Durango native experienced when the Missionary Ridge and Valley fires raged through Wells's domain last summer. Some of his responses will go on display Friday, when his sculptural suite titled burn work opens at the Cordell Taylor Gallery.
Providing the show's foundation are two earlier, possibly more objective, pieces -- Artifactand Zygote-- that were inspired by fires at Mesa Verde and explored philosophically, from a distance. "Though it was still part of my home, the Mesa Verde fires didn't threaten me; they didn't threaten my memory," says the artist. "I was able to deal with them in more of a cerebral fashion. Both pieces carry my pre-disaster feelings about what a fire is -- how it's both good and bad for the land."
"But the Missionary Ridge fire was so close to my home," notes Wells, who helped evacuate the home of his aunt and uncle under terrifying circumstances. "Imagine trying to pack up a whole house in a half-hour -- packing everything you can possibly get into your car, with this huge fire roaring toward you, smoke all around and planes flying overhead. It was like a war zone." Remarkably, the fire leapt twenty miles in their direction in the matter of an hour, propelled by dangerous fire-filled plumes. "Plumes were the most visible aspects of the fire and also the most frightening. They're massive clouds of superheated air and ash and gas and smoke, but the fire is actually inside them -- you can see it. When the fuel is exhausted, the firestorm collapses, like hot-air balloon, and falls, scattering hot ash and cinders everywhere. The firefighters I met said it's something you might only see once or twice in your whole firefighting career, but there were at least twelve here that I counted."
Like a wartime survivor, Wells is only beginning to sift through the ashes of what his community experienced, and the two more recent works he'll show in Denver are clearly driven by a raw form of expression: "It was like the sun came down and touched the earth, and the fire released it in a huge and violent way. I felt like the only way to deal with it was to make an immense drawing." So one piece, Plume Drawing -- a ten-square-foot work in pencil and charcoal -- literally darkens the sky with its enormous, looming imagery that represents a dramatic release of uncontrolled energy. "I don't even show the land," Wells notes. "It's like a monster hanging over your town -- much like Godzilla -- and you can't get away from it." Another work, Swab, compares the recent, pudding-like mudslides in the Durango burn areas to an outpouring of the Earth's blood.
For Wells, these rough and difficult works are only a beginning. "I'd like to say it was cathartic, but really I'm still in the middle of it. I haven't yet made peace with it," he says quietly. Like Durango and its surrounding communities, where fierce debate has already begun between environmentalists and logging concerns, he's still trying to decide what to do next. He does know that he'll continue to explore burn works, a concept that really sprouted like a seed from Colorado's scorched forestland. "Now we have to look at the future: What do we do now? Cut it all down, and start all over? I hope that by showing this, it does help in some way to spark discussion -- more civil than we've had so far -- about how we can save what we've still got."