Hard rain has driven the small crew down from their camp at an alpine lake to a roadside national forest picnic area. The spot’s pleasant, even under a late-May storm: Oregon’s Clackamas and Collawash rivers meet here, and conifers and the fluorescent whorls of horsetails overhang the clear green water.
Amy Harwood—all in black with an Army-drab beanie and a long braid over one shoulder—crouches by a metal fire pit, knifing kindling from a wedge of wood. Four others, all artists, stand around her. Despite sweaters and jackets, everyone looks chilled.
“Are there rippling muscles in there yet?” asks Harwood’s partner, Ryan Pierce, pointing at my notebook. The flames falter in the wet ash. Harwood blows them back to life as Pierce narrates my hypothetical story: “‘It seemed like fire sprouted from their fingers … or from their rippling muscles,’” he says gravely. “‘Julie made a bird call and we were suddenly surrounded by finches.’”
This is an unusual staff meeting, but then this is an unusual group. Signal Fire, which Pierce and Harwood co-founded, runs public-lands-based backcountry trips and residencies for artists and art students. Julie Perini, Wendy Given and Kerri Rosenstein are alums and volunteer guides.
The couple seeks to address gaps in their respective fields: Harwood, a longtime staffer at Bark, a Portland-based environmental nonprofit, and a former staffer for the Center for Biological Diversity, feels that conservation groups lack the right tools to foster broad cultural change. And Pierce is frustrated by the urban art world’s detachment from the wild places he loves.
Signal Fire, they hope, will infuse the environmental movement with new energy and inspire artists to defend public lands.
“I think the population we’re dealing with has a special power. No matter how loud I yell, no matter how good my mass email is, I can’t amplify the way they can,” says Harwood. “Making a painting or producing a play or making a record—it’s hard to claim that it’s going to change people. But we know that it does.”
Harwood came to Portland, Ore., for the ocean but stayed for the forest. When she arrived for college from Portland, Maine, in 1998, she didn’t know Oregon’s largest city was inland. Backpacking wasn’t her bag; she grew up sailing and island-hopping. Still, something clicked after an activist invited her to a tree-sit to stop a timber sale.
“I really loved the logistics of it,” she says. “There were a lot of Friday nights where I was skiing supplies in. It felt like what I was supposed to do.”
In 2008, Harwood won a prize from the local weekly for her environmental advocacy. Pierce, who had just finished his MFA, had long talked about creating a field program for artists: He discovered the self-reliance necessary for becoming one on a semester-long college backpacking course in the Southwest. “Amy was probably like, ‘Let’s actually start this,’” Pierce recalls. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know how to start a thing.’”
So the pair used Harwood’s prize money to buy a 1963 Suburban and remodel a trailer. They towed it up a logging road and left artists for weeklong independent stays on Mount Hood. Then Signal Fire morphed into backcountry stints with groups of artists in a wall tent. But the first backpacking trips to Oregon wilderness areas in the Wallowa Mountains and along Opal Creek in 2010 and 2011 were what cemented the identity of the organization, which became a full-fledged nonprofit in 2013.
“It was just watching people respond to the interruption of their life that way,” Harwood says. “A bunch had never backpacked, and the physical challenge of it really pushed their creativity.”
The artists aren’t required to create anything, though many do: Nude self portraits, an elephant snare, glamour shots of rotting stumps, movies of tap-dancing in rock outcroppings. Some find the experience transformative. Grace Chen, then a California College of the Arts student from Singapore, landed a spot on Signal Fire’s first “Wide Open Studios” in 2013, exploring various California wildlands on a five-week accredited course.
“I had no idea that there was so much space in the world that human beings didn’t live on,” she recalls.
Fascinated by the puzzle-piece patterns of ponderosa bark, she made rubbings that she developed into a series of calligraphy-like characters. The trip galvanized her activism, inspiring her to tackle poverty, race and food systems.
“Understanding the historical and political context that shaped these landscapes I was living among, I realized that the status quo doesn’t have to be this way,” she says. “It’s this way because of peoples’ choices, and we can make different choices.”
These days, Signal Fire runs seven to 10 trips per year, mostly in the West, ranging from a couple hundred dollars to $3,500 for the college course. So far, more than 300 people have participated. Pierce and Harwood share the directorship part-time with Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, a Klamath Modoc visual artist. Each season is arranged around a theme—“the triumphant yet troubled” history of wilderness, for example—and features readings and speakers from environmental and social justice groups designed to help participants think critically about where they are. This year’s theme is “Unwalking the West,” with excursions roughly tracing—in reverse—the routes of explorers like Lewis and Clark. Participants will talk about indigenous sovereignty and the dark, fraught backstory of the public lands.
“It’s a slow process, trying to bring things like that into Signal Fire,” says Farrell-Smith, who will co-lead a trip to the Klamath region on the Oregon-California border. There, they’ll meet with indigenous artist Natalie Ball and discuss the loss of the Klamath Tribes’ reservation.
“It’s one thing to talk about native issues and autonomy within a group of other native people,” Farrell-Smith says. “But it’s vital for everyone in this country to know whose land they’re on and to pay respect to those people and those ancestors.”
Recruiting diverse artists has been the organization’s greatest challenge. After last year’s participants ended up being mostly white, Signal Fire redoubled outreach efforts through community and cultural centers, groups focused on getting people of color outside, activist networks and public universities. It worked: This season, more than half the participants were eligible for six scholarships reserved for non-whites.
It’s difficult to tell how much the experience influences artists’ actual work, since many already deal with environmental themes. But several say that joining an artistic community with similar interests is reaffirming. And the outdoor experience can open new doors: For Portland-based Kurtis Hough, it inspired backpacking trips to Utah and Arizona that helped him complete a trilogy of abstract geological films involving death, rebirth, and long-term environmental change.
It also fosters collaborations: After meeting artist Nina Montenegro, Hough deployed his drone camera to help document part of her “Against Forgetting” project: circles of sawdust representing the circumference of old-growth trees, poured in places where they might have stood. One was in a Portland Superfund site, another in a bricked-over public park.
The group is intentionally not hardcore, like the National Outdoor Leadership School. Once, in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, NOLS students stumbled haggard and hungry into a Signal Fire camp, Harwood says. “We backpacked in just as far as they did. But we were sitting around, talking about critical art theory and eating chocolate. And we were like, ‘Do you want some chocolate?’ And they were like, ‘Really?’ All wild-eyed.”
Instead, Signal Fire’s message is empowerment through accessibility—underscoring the idea that these lands are available to everyone.
“One thing I love about Signal Fire is that it takes (people) like me who don’t go alone into the wild, and they handhold you, get you introduced to it and used to it,” says Portland-based artist Vanessa Renwick, a repeat alum who also serves on the board. “You learn to bear-hang your food and shovel your shit. You get more than your toes wet. You get your ass wet out there.”
Last year, Signal Fire started the Tinderbox Residency, which places an artist with a grassroots environmental group. Gary Wiseman embedded with Bark in the first, and soon found himself deeply engaged in efforts to change public attitudes about forest fires. He followed Forest Watch coordinator Michael Krochta to burns and collected charcoal from trees, then laboriously transformed it into ink and painted Rorschach-esque renderings of each fire’s footprint. He now teaches classes on wild-crafting the ink, because “the process is a tool to help people understand what a fire-adapted ecosystem is and combat some of the language that vilifies fire.”
“It kind of exemplified the work we do in this place-based, artistic way,” Krochta adds. And it changed the way he thought about organizing. Instead of just submitting the usual National Environmental Policy Act comments on a proposal for a fuel-thinning timber sale, he also put up a topo map where forest lovers could write or draw their connections to the place to show why it merits protection. “Hoo hoo hello owls,” one wrote, and “years of winter tracking hikes.” Even some Forest Service employees at an info session participated. “It was really amazing and powerful,” Wiseman says.
Harwood says everyone gets something different from the residencies and trips. Outside Tinderbox, the public-lands engagement part is subtle: She might spend an evening talking about the ins and outs of getting involved in land-use decisions, or building a relationship with and defending a special place.
“That’s the takeaway I want people to have: That they’re welcome to be part of those conversations,” she says. “And I try to remember to just shut up and let the land speak for itself. You don’t have to say: ‘This is an old-growth tree and it’s worth protecting.’ You just walk somebody to an old-growth tree.”
For more information, visit www.signalfirearts.org. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.