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Kindling memories 

"People will look back and see this as a pivotal moment for our community."

Matt Mayberry, director at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, on the Waldo Canyon Fire

In any pivotal moment, both action and reaction take on huge importance. And in this summer of the Waldo Canyon Fire, arts institutions in Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs have been part of each.

Some organizations, like the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, found a way to help as the huge blaze blew into town. Meanwhile, Mayberry and his museum cohorts, along with the Pikes Peak Library District and the Business of Art Center are rolling out ways right now for the local arts community to commemorate the fire, and to help locals heal.

Bring us art ...

Shortly after the fire displaced thousands, the arts community began looking for practical ways to help. Many organizations, including the FAC and numerous local theaters and playhouses, such as the Millibo Art Theatre, opened their doors to the public for free.

"The temperature was in the upper 90s and the air quality was so poor, we thought people might like to get out of the heat a little bit," says FAC president and CEO Sam Gappmayer. "Art offers a space for meditating and, for some people, a spiritual quality, so we opened our doors for a couple weeks."

(The FAC's good deed was rewarded; Gappmayer says attendance was twice as high as typical during that period.)

The FAC also offered a unique service for those fleeing the fire — storage for their valuable art.

"It would not have made much sense to send our staff out with hats and fire axes," recalls Gappmeyer, but "when it happened, everybody — including ourselves — had an impulse to do something."

Even if folks could cram their valuable objets d'art into their cars, upon arrival at a hotel, shelter or friend's home, there might not be room. And humidity and temperature extremes can wreak havoc on these artifacts. So the FAC provided an alternative in its secure, heat- and humidity-controlled basement, where it stows its own permanent collection.

"Hundreds" of pieces were stored there, says Gappmayer. Though most have been picked up by now, at press time a few works of art were still in the building.

"In some cases, these were notable works of art that even we weren't aware were in our community," Gappmayer says. What, exactly, he won't divulge, in order to protect the privacy of the fire's victims.

... and stories ...

Now, removed from the tragedy somewhat by time, the local arts community can take a long view of the fire's effects.

At the Pioneers Museum, curation is in the concluding stages for an exhibit about the fire and what it left behind. The exhibition is slated to open June 26, 2013, a year from the day that fire ignited the Mountain Shadows hillside, claiming two lives and 345 homes.

"[We] wanted to wait a year to create some distance," Mayberry says. "It's a respectful amount of time before we bring the topic back up again, but also so we have some perspective."

Among the items the exhibit will display: a charred street sign, a melted Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and a patch of smoke-damaged rug, with an outline of a children's toy — and the toy itself — burned into it.

In addition to these artifacts, the museum is compiling oral histories from citizens across the city. To answer the question, "How does a community respond to disaster?" says Mayberry, they'll weave stories of ordinary folks, which are being collected via a form on the museum's website, into the exhibit. (From the cspm.org homepage, click "Research" and then "Tell your story.") The museum is also collaborating with the Pikes Peak Library District to gather multimedia — from images and video of the fire itself to archives of news coverage locally and nationally — to chronicle the fire in a single, holistic homage at the museum.

Mayberry points out that the last great city fire happened back in 1898, when much of downtown went up in flames. "We really don't have any stories related to that," he says. Thanks in part to social media, the Waldo Canyon Fire won't disappear completely, but the Pioneers Museum is intent on more traditionally preserving the stories that went along with it.

... and open hands

Meanwhile, the Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs has undertaken its own task: helping fire victims actually replace some of what burned.

Their initiative, Art for a New Start, involves collecting an original piece of work for each household that lost their home, to be unveiled at a reception Nov. 30. The victims will be invited to browse all the submissions and claim one — on a first-come, first-served basis — that speaks to them.

Right now, BAC event coordinator Jana Rush is still trying to gather enough pieces from the community for 345 households: "I'm getting a little worried ... [that's] a lot of art.

"We want good-quality art," she adds. "Something special, not something you'd find in the back of your closet that hadn't sold."

Rush says she's looking for all styles, since "some people like ducks and geese, some people like modern art, some people like landscapes." She's already got commitments from well-known locals including Sean O'Meallie, Lance Green, Laura Reilly. Rebecca Etcheverry, an abstract artist who's the BAC's most prolific in terms of total sales, will be donating work, too.

At the same time, though, the BAC community is dealing with some problems of its own. In mid-August, intruders entered Venue 515 and flooded the building, racking up about $100,000 worth of damage.

Thankfully, none of the submissions for Art for a New Start were affected. And regardless, Rush and company are determined to keep going, perhaps by focusing on the longest of views. After all, any gift they can give at the end of November will, in some ways, actually be little more than a blank canvas.

"You can have a new coffee pot, a new toaster, a new desk," Rush says. " ... [But] it's the memories that are tied up in these things that make your house a home."

scene@csindy.com

  • Art and archival organizations across the region answer the Waldo Canyon Fire's call.

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