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Growing up in Montana, I had a visceral and consuming romance with the landscape. For years my family camped almost every weekend, and we spent a lot of time on the road between my grandparents’ farms and our home in town. I looked forward even as a little girl to the revelations of nature, opened up by an angle of light or a shift in the clouds or a startling element—a carcass or a downed tree—that were certain to happen at least once in every outing. When I saw one of those illuminating moments coming, my breath would suddenly go still, my heart would pound and the hair would stand up on my arms. Sometimes they were about life and death, sometimes about balance, sometimes about time, sometimes about beauty. And sometimes I couldn’t tell at the moment what they were about, I just knew that they marked me. Those moments were frozen, not in memory, but in experience. I still carry them with me.
As a girl, I believed that this was what true love felt like, because it was so visceral, so absolute, so filled with understanding. I have always held those breathtaking moments in my heart as a standard of a sort, for art, among other things.
Thus, when forest fires again began raging in Montana I returned to them, this time as a painter. I live an urban life now, surrounded by the urban conceit that that which is not of the city is less sophisticated, less relevant to modern life. Yet I have often pictured the baby green shoots of grass standing in the ash of a devastated forest when I have needed a metaphor for order in a complicated urban world. So I sought out the fire and from it, some of the contrasts of nature that to me illuminate living.
These paintings are all portraits of natural elements whose relationship has been in some way inverted, reordered by fire. When standing in a blackened forest, for example, I found the sky the more immediate, accessible and sustaining element, even though my feet were on the earth, and the sky was untouchable. On other days, when smoke covered the sky, the time of day became unknowable; from sunrise to sunset, the world appeared to be in one long twilight, with a sun that looked just like a cloud-covered moon. On nights when the fire blazed on somewhere over the mountains, night looked brighter than day. And smoke, a normally small perturbation of the air, the stuff of fireplaces and campfires, suddenly took on the mass and scope to lay an obliterating blanket over land and sky as far as the eye could see.
Yet, all of these inversions were acts of nature. They were natural in their unnaturalness. And they were as beautiful as they were devastating and disorienting.
As I worked I observed a new order emerging from the destruction. Normally, for example, as I stood on the forest floor, the sky would be all but blocked out by towering pine branches. But with nothing but trunks left standing, relationships changed. Sky was visible all the way down through the trees to the horizon. Light was admitted into the forest in a different way. And plant life began springing from the blackened earth a single day after the fire passed, because ash is a potent fertilizer, morning dew happens even after a fire, and light now reached where it could never have gone before, compelling green growth from a scorched earth.
Therefore these paintings can be seen in one way as portraits of the elements, and in another as meditations on the new balance accomplished through destruction.
—Susan "Montana" Murdoch