After 10 days of evacuation, Mountain Shadows resident Steve Weed exhaled a sigh of relief last July, seeing his family home still standing against the apocalyptic landscape.
In his next breath, he could taste the remains of his neighbors’ houses, trees and possessions.
Ashes were everywhere–his yard, his deck overlooking the charred foothills, the air and inside his house.
But instead of fueling the despair, the fire’s aftermath became an inspiration for Weed, a graphic designer, photographer and fine artist by trade.
"I’ve drawn with charcoal all my life, and I thought it would be cool if I could draw with the embers, the charcoal that remained," he says.
The project, "Ashes to Art," has come to fruition not only as a way to memorialize the state’s most destructive fire but also help the community heal and rebuild.
A series of 20 watercolors and oil paintings Weed created is touring the city, on display at the Colorado Springs Airport, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, The Hayden Hays Gallery at The Broadmoor and other locations.
In July, the paintings will be auctioned to the highest bidders, and proceeds will benefit Colorado Springs Together. The nonprofit organization formed after the fire to coordinate recovery efforts, foster collaboration and provide a way for the community to give back to the 347 families that lost their homes.
Chairman and President Bob Cutter says monies raised from the auction will help fund one of three community enhancement projects now underway: a public memorial; an event to be held on June 26, the day a massive fireball topped the foothills last year, or renovation of the neighborhood park.
"This is an incredibly generous commitment that truly comes from the heart," Cutter says of Weed’s project. "The paintings are of incredible quality and a great fusion of Steve’s painting style and the materials that resulted from the fire. They’re very poignant in terms of the memories, but also being able to capture in a unique way what is going to be a very significant part of Colorado Springs history for decades."
Weed says he’s "humbled" by the response and support.
"I started this as a way to cope and work through the experience," he says, "and I had no idea where it would go."
The project had an unintentional start. After the fire, when Weed and his wife, Laurie Wilson, gained access to their street off Flying W Ranch Road last July, Weed picked up where he had left off when the couple had fled the encroaching flames. He grabbed his camera and began shooting what he saw. This time, he also talked to some of the neighbors who had just discovered they were homeless.
While Weed and Wilson thought they would return to find nothing–including more than 300 paintings of Weed’s that lined his home-based art studio–neighbors whose homes had perished seemed to echo one thought, "We’ll rebuild."
"It was pretty shocking – it looked like bombs had gone off with just foundations or crumpled metal garage door frames left," Weed says. "Neighbors who had lost their homes were pensive but didn’t seem sad. They were in shock. I was almost in tears. I wanted to help."
A painter for 40 years, Weed decided to capture on canvas that human spirit of resilience and fortitude. He, his wife and stepdaughter gathered the natural charcoal of varying texture and consistency and carefully placed it in large bags.
He combed through his own photos and studied videos and pictures others had taken of the event. Then, he went to work. It took a while to figure out how to most effectively apply the ashes, which had formed a softer charcoal than artists normally use for drawing.
"I started mixing it, crushed finely, with turpentine and linseed oil, so it ended up like an ink," Weed says.
Once he found a workable method, he sketched initial ideas using the fire’s ashes before painting in watercolors and oils the images that poured from his mind and body.
"I painted outside because I wanted to feel the heat," he says.
In a relatively short time, Weed produced about 20 fire-related pieces of different shapes and sizes, from abstracts to detailed scenes. Old wooden doors are the canvas for the five largest paintings, to symbolize new doors opening out of the ruins.
"I didn’t want it to just be about the loss, but also the rebuilding," Weed says.
Some are mixed media, featuring smeared-on burned grit, for example. Weed initially considered just doing black charcoal drawings, but he says vibrant color seemed like it belonged,
including in his depiction of what he calls "The Monster," the night of June 26, 2012, when the Western portion of the city throbbed with an orange glow.
A few of the paintings, including one inspired by a photo a U.S. Forest Service employee took, will be made into prints, which Weed says he will give to firefighters, police officers and forest service workers who responded to the disaster.
"Laurie loved that I was using the charcoal and called it therapy," he says. "I felt like I had to get it out of my system–it seemed like a natural thing to do. It was the most intense thing I’ve ever been through, and I wanted to document it."