In late September of 2011, I remember camping with some friends. We were celebrating Burning Man, the massive festival in the Nevada desert, at a Central Texas campground since we couldn’t make it to the big event. On the last day, I remember the skies filling up with smoke. Most of us assumed there was a fire nearby.
In reality, the fire was much further away and much larger than we realized. As we traveled back, we heard the real news — and that the fire had cost a camp mate almost all her worldly possessions. The Bastrop County Wildfires of 2011 were the most destructive wildfires in the history of Texas. They destroyed over 1,500 homes and caused millions in damage, and affected the lives of almost everyone in the Central Texas region — if you live here and weren’t touched directly, you probably know someone who was.
Two years after the fires went out, one artist displayed a memorial to them at Art Outside.
Sebastian Miles created “Phoenix” to honor the memory of those fires and the rebirth that followed. The piece is a small bird feeder in the shape of a charred rustic cabin, which sits atop a tall, similarly charred stump of pine. The story of its creation is intimately linked to the fires.
Miles owned properties in the region, but getting to them was difficult because of fires that sometimes raged across highways. His first attempt to reach one of his sites was rebuffed by state officials. Undeterred, he donned a respirator and climbed aboard his dirt bike and set off into the burning woods. On his journey, he spotted a burning cabin alone but for a pile of firewood stacked nearby.
When the fires died down, he returned to the location and collected the remains of the cabin. He milled the logs down to return them to a clean, golden pine and then built a scale replica of the original cabin in the shape of a bird feeder.
Then, in honor of the fiery birth of the Phoenix rising from the ashes, he burnt the structure again.
Its charred state also acts like a natural weather proofing, meaning in the future it could be installed outdoors and used as a functional bird feeder.
Healing from an event like this takes time. My friend still, today, goes looking for some object and then realizes it’s burned away. But life begins to return quickly to damaged places. The death of old growth allows us to take new paths and begin new undertakings — now, my friend is working toward a graduate degree in mental health.
Miles made several pieces based on the Bastrop fires, some of which were previously displayed at Jennifer Chenowith’s Fisterra Studio and featured in the East Austin Studio Tour. He was a little cagey about what he’s working on now and just said that he has several works in progress that he looks forward to displaying at future events.
Phoenix shows how tragedy can inspire art, and how sometimes the most moving pieces are intimately tied to a time, an event, and a location. For many of us who remember the fires, it was one of the most memorable parts of this year’s Art Outside.