On November 8, 2018, the Camp Fire decimated the town of Paradise in less than four hours, becoming the deadliest wildfire in California history and a harbinger of what awaits in the age of climate crisis. Since early 2019, I have visited Paradise monthly as part of a year-long engagement with the Paradise community where I analyzed climate research, dissected myths of paradise, documented the landscape, and envisioned art as a path for healing.
When I first visited Paradise, I was drawn to the chimneys that rose up out of the rubble; these were the only structures that were not destroyed by the fire as they were made of fire, they held it in their core. I captured dozens of these chimneys using a large format camera and developed the black and white sheet film and printed the resulting portraits in a community darkroom in San Francisco. I see this work as an aesthetic and ideological extension of Hilla and Bernd Becher’s typological project. Prints from this series were included in two concurrent group shows in November 2019, Remembrance; Recovery; Resurgence, at the Paradise Art Center, Paradise, CA and Annual Photography Exhibit, at the Harvey Milk Photo Center, San Francisco, CA. All of the chimneys have since been removed as the community prepares the land to rebuild.
The core of my work in Paradise has been my collaboration with Paradise Junior & Senior High School students and their English teachers; I led a poetry workshop where students wrote their “wishes” for the future in poem form, and I then edited down the 229 works and stitched them together to form one piece, 86 Wishes for a New Dawn, in memoriam of the 86 lives lost in the fire.
For the one year anniversary, I choreographed a performance at the memorial event Joy Will Find a Way at the Paradise Performing Arts Center; the 86 Wishes poem was read by two 10th grade students, Ayla Kirby and Brianna Clark, as drone footage of the landscape healing was projected behind them and the Paradise Symphony Orchestra performed a movement from The Great Circle, by Emmy-winning composer Jeff Beal, alongside them. A short film also titled 86 Wishes for a New Dawn is an artifact of this performance – the audio of the students reading the poem and the symphony performing the score overlay the drone footage compiled by filmmaker Robbie Heeger.
The increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters is nothing but guaranteed. What isn’t guaranteed is how we move forward. Paradise is a microcosm of the Earth as paradise and perhaps the answer is in the pleas of the youth, their will being at the core of our collective healing.
Whatever befalls the earth,
befalls the children of the earth;
it is on us to bear witness and act…
before it’s too late.