The latest work by artist Liz Toohey-Wiese is based on a photo of the bluffs of Zeballos as wildfires began last August. Image of painting courtesy Liz Toohey-Wiese

Vancouver-based artist paints Zeballos wildfires

Paintings by Liz Toohey-Wiese address climate change, effects of economy on physical world

Vancouver-based artist Liz Toohey-Wiese, who completed a month-long artist residency at the Sointula Art Shed today, has wildfires on her mind.

Toohey-Wiese’s recent paintings mix the apocalyptic realities of record-breaking wildfires with dark humour in her series Wildfire Tourism. Before starting her residency in Sointula, she printed postcards that depict a blazing forest with the words “Wish You Were Here!”

Other watercolour paintings completed during the June residency show the phrases “Miss You Already!” and “Come Back Soon!” against a fiery background, creating a spooky effect that raises questions about who is being addressed by the words.

“What does it mean to wish someone into an inferno? That’s kind of bizarre,” she said, explaining that slogans like “Come Back Soon” aren’t necessarily directed towards people, but towards nature itself as the forests burn.

Painting fire presents some interesting challenges.

“You paint the fire last,” she said. “You leave the fire as this negative space because with watercolour, you have to preserve the brightness of the paper for anything you want to be very bright in your painting.”

The artist, a professor of fine art at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, says her work is meant as an intervention on the idea of the landscape she finds herself in and her relationship to place.

That involves meditations on how industry shapes the natural world, including beaches with driftwood originating from log booms.

“Economy physically changes the landscape,” she said. “Logs are not an inherent part of beaches, they are part of the forestry industry that physically changes the landscape.”

Following two consecutive years of record-breaking wildfires, her work involves a kind of grieving for the Earth as the climate rapidly changes.

“I think we’re confronted with numbers and facts and statistics very often in terms of climate change but they’re so abstract that it doesn’t mean anything,” she said.

“I think everyone in B.C. is kind of feeling this sense of loss or sense of grief,” she said. “Even if you live in a place where probably your house isn’t going to be threatened, it still feels like (wildfires are) changing the way we understand the weather and the summer or seasons.”

During her time at the Sointula Art Shed, she also completed a painting for the series Fire Season that depicts Zeballos, the tiny northern Vancouver Island logging village, as smoke pours from the high bluffs.

She was intrigued after locals in Sointula told her about wildfires that began in Zeballos last August, and she found the image compelling partly because of the human presence: a road, telephone wires and vehicles, people’s houses.

It’s also an interesting image because no fire is visible, only smoke.

READ MORE: Evacuation order lifted for most of Zeballos, but five homes still affected

The painting is based on a photo taken on August 14, 2018 as authorities struggled to keep up with wildfires across the province, including 44 reported on Vancouver Island following lightning storms.

(The Zeballos photo was published in an article by this reporter on August 15, 2018 about the Zeballos-area wildfires. The photographer requested anonymity at the time.)

Smoke rises from a wildfire burning just outside of Zeballos in an August 14, 2018 photo. The photographer requested anonymity when the image was published by Black Press. Vancouver-based artist Liz Toohey-Wiese rendered the image in watercolour as part of a series of wildfire paintings. 

Pulling photos from news reports points towards an alienation from the actual events, Toohey-Wiese said. She hasn’t yet witnessed a wildfire.

The painting shows smoke rising above North Maquinna Avenue, which was closed for months due to the risk of falling debris from the torched cliffside.

The risk of landslides also resulted in an eight-month evacuation order lifted at the beginning of May for some 20 properties in the village of about 107 people. Five properties remained under the evacuation order until June 1.

The potential for another intense wildfire season looms amid very dry drought-like conditions throughout large sections of B.C., including all of Vancouver Island as of June 28, despite some rainfall.

Meanwhile, Toohey-Wiese says she’s sure to return to the Sointula, the community on Malcolm Island founded by Finnish utopian socialists northeast of Vancouver Island in 1901. She said it’s a place with a strong sense of community among the residents, many who work in resource industries like logging and fishing.

“I’ve just been here for a month but I’ve gotten really attached to the community here,” she said, adding that she hopes to visit Zeballos before returning home.

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