This Artist Enlisted Female Inmate Firefighters for a Show About Our Fragile Environment

Kim Abeles and the women of Camp 13 collaborated on Valises for Camp Ground

Artist Kim Abeles isn’t down with images of forest fires. “I think that the only purpose it serves is to entice arson,” she explains. “You look at them and it’s always an ooh-ahh thing and I feel that it’s a contradiction to the kind of prevention that I’m talking about here.”


In Valises for Camp Ground: Arts, Corrections, and Fire Management in the Santa Monica Mountains, her new exhibit running through the month of September at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts, Abeles skipped the disaster porn. Instead, her show of nature dioramas inside of suitcases and other travel bags is filled out with photos of nature taken in forests and in Pasadena; curtains in hues that evoke fire have been hung in the room. Displayed throughout the gallery are pieces that address fire fighting, fire prevention, and care for the environment. And all of the pieces were made in collaboration with Camp 13, a group of female prison inmates stationed in Malibu who fight wildfires.

forest fire art camp 13
Valise 8 – Home, Kim Abeles

A “community-based artist,” Abeles has created work over the decades that focused on a number of different social and environmental issues. In the late 1980s, she began a series inspired by smog. In the mid-1990s, she dove into beach and ocean conservation with Run-Off Dolphin Suitcase. With her current show, Abeles explores wildfires and the relationship between humans and urban nature. Last year proved to be particularly devastating in terms of the sheer volume of wildfires that hit California and the scope of blazes. The Thomas Fire, which burned swaths of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, was the largest fire in the state history and took more than a month to contain; it has since been eclipsed in size by this year’s Mendocino Complex Fire.

For 37 years, Abeles lived and worked in downtown Los Angeles. “We did get pushed out because of gentrification,” she says. Now, she describes herself as “a little nomadic,” splitting time between Crestline, a tiny hamlet in the San Bernardino National Forest, and Pasadena. Her home in Crestline situates her in the midst of the nature that’s central to her current work, but Valises for Camp Ground came about as the result of an invitation to spend six months making art with Camp 13. The project was managed by Armory Center for the Arts and came together with grants from the NEA and Los Angeles County Arts Commission.

For six months, Abeles spent Sundays making art with Camp 13. They collaborated on the pieces within the show as the women shared their knowledge of fires and firefighting with Abeles. “They’re quite the terrific group of women,” says Abeles. And working with women engaged in such dangerous work while fires tore through California brought the issues closer to home for Abeles. “When the fires kicked up so crazy and all these women that I got to know so well were at these fires, it wasn’t an abstract thing,” Abeles says.

The names of the women in Camp 13 who Abeles worked with

Abeles considered the role people play in both the spread and the prevention of fires. She notes that wildfires are overwhelmingly triggered by human actions. “The amplitude of them is really about climate change…we cause all that too,” says Abeles. “But, when you think of the source of fire as being human-caused, it makes you realize oh there’s an educational moment that needs to be had.” Education is part of the exhibition.

It’s Abeles’s hope that some of the former Camp 13 inmates who’ve since been released will make it out to see the show. Their names are listed in rings on the top of a valise that resembles a tree trunk. When the case is opened, it reveals two forest scenes. On one side, the trees stand tall with rolling green hills surrounding them. On the other side, they’re covered in an ashy gray and backed by a dark red sky. Other valises offer educational components. One depicts the dos and don’ts of home protection while another shows the intersection of wildlife and human-made structures. Another valise holds a three-pound Coulter pine cone, which is listed as “near threatened” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. “I thought it as like the Hope Diamond,” she says, while demonstrating how she wraps and unwraps the display case like a gift.

“If you see something like that, maybe this can also generate a love of nature,” she adds. “I also think that if you can’t love something, you can’t protect it.”

Valises for Camp Ground: Arts, Corrections, and Fire Management in the Santa Monica Mountains, Armory Center for the Arts, Community Room, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena; through Sept. 30. On Sat., Sept. 15, 4-6 p.m., the Armory is hosting an artist reception; at 3 p.m., a forest ranger and wildlife biologist will deliver a presentation about our urban relationship to forests and wildlife.

RELATED: Pieces of Southern California’s Wildfire-Ravaged Landscape Have Become Haunting Sculptures

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