Los-Angeles based artist Jennifer Gunlock has often looked to nature for inspiration. While her work seems abstractionist, it also embodies elements that link her to surrealism: Gunlock has an uncanny ability to interweave elements of the urban world with tree-like formations that, together, produce futuristic landscapes.

Intrigued by the camouflaged cell phone tower, poorly fashioned after the tree, Gunlock has produced an impressive body of work that reflects what she describes as her “fascination with the relationships between things of nature and those of human imposition.”

From afar, the subjects of her work appear as “tall conifer-like specimens contrasted against a sparse background,” as described by Andrea Monroe for The Hidden Artist. Up close, her careful application of collage, blended with acrylic and colored pencil, reveal a captivating mingling of natural elements with bits of urban decay.

Gunlock’s large-scale works aren’t only engrossing aesthetically, but her depth of content asks us to reexamine our environment and address the preservation of the remaining resources that we haven’t already defiled. For these reasons, she was one of eleven artists selected by a juried panel to participate in Fires of Change, an innovative arts program funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Joint Fires Sciences Program.

Fires of Change is a true pioneering endeavor. Rarely have scientists looked to fine artists for assistance in an attempt to articulate their concerns. With climate change’s increasing impact upon the vegetation and hydrological dynamics that exist throughout the Southwest, the Southwest Fire Science Consortium, the Flagstaff Arts Council, and the Landscape Conservation Initiative came together to configure a solution to better communicate the ecological necessities of wildfire for the preservation of our eco-system.

Now on view at Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff, Arizona, Fires of Change is a unique exhibition, featuring works aimed to expand the public’s understanding of the complexities concerning our approach to wildfire and to communicate the social and ecological issues surrounding wildfire to a broader audience with the hope of implementing meaningful policy change.

As a contributing participant in Fires of Change, Gunlock engaged in a yearlong discourse with fellow artists, scientists, and land managers about wildfire and its impact upon the Southwest. During this period, she was granted the opportunity to visit the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, where for one week, she met with fire managers, ecologists, and firefighters to speak about the past, present, and future potential of fire on the Colorado Plateau.

For years, wildfire, whether originated by man or natural causes, has been addressed by one primary mode: intervention. While the elimination of fire seems rational, natural burning fires are in fact pivotal to our ecosystem’s health. When natural occurring fires are extinguished, our forests become that much denser and essentially allow for small wildfires to quickly turn into uncontrollable firestorms.

Traveling to the North Rim didn’t only equip Gunlock with new and relevant information about the destructive nature that decades of fire suppression has imparted, but it inspired her to seriously consider how, as a visual artist, she could manifest this information into a communicative work of art. While exploring the wilderness, Gunlock was drawn to the charred scars that covered the remains of various fire-inflicted ponderosa pines. Their grid like glossy patterns echoed the impression of mirrored skyscrapers and gave Gunlock an inciting idea from which her piece, “Urban Interface,” evolved.

An 11 x 15 foot mural comprising 18 sheets of Stonehenge paper, “Urban Interface” is Gunlock’s largest work to date. A reinterpretation of the forest, the piece invites viewers to wander into Gunlock’s imagined landscape and consider the nuance of fire and how pivotal it is to ecosystem health. Embedded with evidence of man’s imprint, each tree comprises various intricacies, such as a fire engine’s headlamp and an old, rusted fire escape, while pieces of rice paper float in the background, suggestive of smoke, signaling the danger of an approaching fire.

Gunlock’s process has always been one of discovery and invention. Using imagery she photographs herself as a source for her inspiration, she has produced an impressive body of work that innovatively underscores nature’s persistence despite an ever growing and imposing urban incursion.

Nature will continue to endure by adapting to an ever-changing environment. We have witnessed this resilience over the course of history with the rise and fall of civilizations. Artists such as Gunlock help to remind us of this reality. If we utilize the fortitude required to maintain the health of our eco-system, then perhaps we, too, will have the chance to endure.

Fires of Change will remain on view at Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff, Arizona, through October 31. A public reception is slated for Saturday, September 19, from 6 pm until 8 pm, with an artists’ talk scheduled the same day for 5 pm.

–Anise Stevens

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