It was a cold night in the mountains. Like many nights, I turned the car and headed south along the Tuckaseegee River. The last of the evening light paled in shades of blue. The air was thin and balmy, and laced with chimney smoke from nearby cabins. Near the river basin in Soco Gap, I looked up and saw what appeared to be another wildfire. I was driving. So I asked mom to call it in to the Park Service Patrol. The call was recorded and then transferred to the appropriate response office. It was a very dry year. During the autumn season, I watched carefully for news postings of road closures and hazardous conditions before making my usual northward treks each weekend.
On the weekend following, I drove from Sylva along the Blue Ridge Parkway, passed Water Rock Knob and back down along the ridge of the Soco Gap overlook. There I saw remnants of the fire, which I spotted from the valley below in late October. From Morganton, to Lake Lure and then on to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park [GSMNP] my heart ached for my mountains each time images were posted. Online, I watched blue ridges enraged in fire, smoke, then left in ash and dust.
Earlier in the summer, I pondered how I might best approach rendering a painting I’d envisioned. I’d spent much of the year planning new paintings and among them, I felt particularly compelled towards a scene addressing modern communications, civil disconnect and the narratives presented by society. Later last year, as the mountains burned, I felt unnerved. The painting I’d previously envisioned, was the scene of two figures, sitting distanced apart amid a wildfire ravaged wasteland. “Do I paint it, or sit the thought upon a shelf,” I questioned. The subject seemed too close to home considering recent events in the mountain region. Even still my convictions towards nature conservation and my desire for the restoration of civility in society prevailed ‘gainst my apprehension.
Time passed, I worked, pondered and meditated. It was an election year filled with anticipation and dread. I observed, there was plenty to entertain many, while others were distracted.
On November 23rd, I grew alarmed as I read of fires that continued to spread on the Tennessee side of GSMNP. It was then that I learned of the Chimney Tops Fire (the Chimney Tops has long been a popular trail within the national park.)
Thanksgiving week, I retired one evening. After concluding that there seemed nothing worth watching on television, I retrieved my phone and succumbed to aimlessly scrolling through my newsfeed. Having heard little mention of the fires on mainstream news, I felt compelled to search keywords on twitter #GSMNPfire, #TNWildfires, etc..
I could feel the heat against my face. With hands griping the glowing screen, I watched with horror, videos live stream. The first video I saw was taken inside ParkVista. I heard the panic and watched the flames burn nearer the tower’s window panes. On many a past occasion, I’ve stayed there. I always requested a room facing Mt. LeConte. The hotel atop the hill provides ideal locale for convenient access to the GSMNP via Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail, and the historic sites like Ogle place, Rainbow Falls Trail and more…
I feared for the people of Gatlinburg and listened intensely as reports infiltrated social media. I checked the major cable news networks and found little addressing the imminent crisis. I felt helpless, and enraged. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I questioned, “why aren’t significant news sources reporting on this, as it is happening?” How could this major source of southeastern regional tourism along with parts of the nation’s most visited national park, thousands of homes, livelihoods be burning without foreseeable end with seemingly so little attention or concern?” I thought of the people with limited routes for escape. I questioned, “what would I do, if I were in their situation?” I thought of businesses, the mom and pop- family owned establishments that I’ve visited. I thought of the homes of year round residence, and the cabins that have fostered the making of holiday memories.
#WileyOakley drive, I read was impassable. Then later I heard reports that everything was gone. I watched the video of a man who drove down Chalet Village road while trees fell all around his vehicle, and fires poured down the mountain like lava. I prayed that this wouldn’t be his final post, and I also prayed that the media would awaken and share real-time news of this living hell. In came reports of #RoaringForks. I thought of Ely’s Mill and the cabin perched Above It All where we watched fireworks illuminate the clouds one 4th of July. I prayed and wondered. Landmark tourist attraction like the downtown Ski-Lift were gone, along parts of Arrowmont.
Through the night, with my glowing screen I kept watch. My mother, Michele turned to me as we sat watching and said, “Sarah, this is your painting…we are those figures and this is reality…it’s time that you continue your work on that painting..this is the painting.”
In the days that followed, I found comfort in Dolly Parton’s telethon, and Robin Mead’s dedication to the story’s coverage on her show. I returned to the area as soon as I could with desire to support the businesses and park service. And then I visited Ogle Place on Roaring Forks on New Year’s Day. Along the edge of the GSMNP demolition equipment could be heard. Over a month has passed since the horrific night when 14 lives were lost. On the first day of the new year, it was evident that the people of this little Tenneesee town truly are Mountain Strong, a title which has brought unity and empowerment to the fire-torn spirits of residents one and all.
The fire rushed down the mountain side, and overtook parts of the spur. It swarmed around the upper ridges and closed in on the town below. At the Ogle cabin, I took a walk and read trail warning posts. I photographed remnants and observed the path bathed by fire that kissed the toes of history, but nearer didn’t touch. The old cabin seemed unharmed. I stand astonished each time I return. Like patterns waves cast upon the shoreline, fire also leaves as much. Hues like sulphur, copper and gold cling to soil, bark and mosses where ferns and fungi lay petrified. The laurel turned to umbre. I’ve rarely seen it that color. The sight of fire-burned laurel rival words. The mist was lavender o’er ridges of blue. At Ogle Place the painting called “Wonderland” began beneath a sun which looked more like the moon.
The Paintings namesake:
Wonderland is a place atop a hill overlooking land once harvested by the Little River Timber Company. When the company was through, they left the train trestle and the Appalachian Club settled the area as a remote resort township occupying land until it was later acquired by the National Park Service. In the years which followed the Timber Company, families from Knoxville would claim the area as their summer home, establishing settlements like Daisytown, Society Hill, Millionaire’s Row, now known as Elkmont.
The Wonderland Hotel was a lodge during the resort towns early years. Only remnants now remain since a fire destroyed the Annex just a few short years ago. The cause of the fire was suspect, and is still under investigation.
Wonderland serves as part of “the Collision of Culture and Lack of Civility” paintings created by Sarah West in 2016/2017. Wonderland is accompanied by a painting of smaller scale titled, “Matches.” The fourteen matches were rendered in honor of the memory of the fourteen lives lost in the Gatlinburg fire, the most deadly fire in over one hundred years of the neighboring national park’s history. The bunny serves as ode to nature conservancy, preservation and recovery.
While the purpose of these paintings for record of historic relevance is evident, they began merely as vision in mid-summer. Convicted by the social discourse, riots, protests and online rants heard ’round the world, I began to ponder the question, “Are we informed, or are we misinformed?” When we see someone on one’s phone or other device, we often presume there to be an evident disconnect between that individual and the immediate world around them. This common perception has caused me to stop and question, “Is there a disconnect..or perhaps there’s a greater realm of connectivity, if might recognize it?”
Field sketches and early studies for “the Collision of Culture and Lack of Civility” paintings pertaining to these.
To learn more about these paintings, the artist and more, your inquires are welcomed by the Sarah West Gallery of Fine Art via 334-480-2008, email via email@example.com
Also see the Artists page, Sarah West- Current Works
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