Missouri Heights sculptor transforms wildfire wreckage into art

Wally Graham’s ’Wildfire Spirits’ show is open at Aspen’s Gonzo Gallery

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Courtesy photo

Sculptor Wally Graham has found creative life in the devastation of the Lake Christine Fire.

His “Wildfire Spirits” series of wood sculptures, made from trees burned in the 12,500-acre 2018 forest fire on Basalt Mountain, is now on view at the Gonzo Gallery in a charity exhibition.

Graham is best known as a local trash guru who was among the Roaring Fork Valley’s early recycling leaders. After settling here in 1989, he founded a small recycling business that grew into Waste Solutions and which he sold in 2009. Since then, Graham has focused on the nonprofit Addy Foundation — which he and his wife, Kristen, use to fund arts education and nonprofits — and on his budding art practice (as an artist, he goes simply by “Wally”).

He built an art studio four years ago in his Missouri Heights home and in recent years has experimented with sculpture, drawing and other media, beginning by looking at work by favorite artists and attempting to figure out how they did it. Spending so much time at home this year during the novel coronavirus pandemic, Wally found himself at work on refining these wildfire pieces and felt compelled to do more with them.

“I decided to try and make art with impact and to open up a conversation and to give back to the community,” he said during installation at the gallery this past week. “That is the main goal.”

Wally Graham’s sculptures from wildfire burned wood in the Gonzo Gallery on Dec. 24, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Proceeds from the show, which includes 10 “Wildfire Spirits” sculptures, will be split between the Addy Foundation and wildfire education programs.

“I wanted to give back to the people who steward the land,” he said, “like the forest service and firefighters.”

Flames from the Lake Christine Fire came within about a mile of the Grahams’ home. In the two years since, Wally has been transfixed by the beauty and awe of hiking through the burn area’s devastation.

“I get lost in those fields,” he said. “It’s a powerful feeling when you’re up there.”

His artistic breakthrough, however, came as he began to see the face-like shapes that flames often sculpt into trees as they tear through the forest. He began taking trees and trunks and branches into his studio to create characters out of those faces.

“When you’re out there, you can see the faces in the trees,” he said. “It’s very ominous.”

Once he finds a face, he adds a layer of epoxy to accentuate its features and then begins experimenting with other, mostly natural, materials like stone and bone.

Wally Graham’s sculpture from wildfire burned wood in the Gonzo Gallery on Dec. 24, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Like the burn zones themselves, these sculptures elicit complicated reactions. They can be overwhelming and overpowering — some stand more than 10 feet tall — while their charred exteriors give way to sometimes-playful expressions on their “faces.”

“Myka,” standing more than 6 feet tall, is a proud figure that appears to be pulling its red cotton shroud close around its body. “Big Chief,” among the tallest works here, has what appears to be a feather protruding from its head.

The sculpture “Anselmo,” made with burnt wood from the Ranch at Roaring Fork fire of 2009 rather than Lake Christine, has a cocked head and a smirk (and features made from animal bones found in the fire area). Wally has placed a metal cowboy hat on its head.

Wally plans to expand the scope of “Wildfire Spirits” to include works with wood from fires in California, Oregon and Washington.

A few other works are squat and more abstract, like “Open Secret,” in which charred bark stands in a semi-circle.

But the pieces are more Rorschach test than statement. One of the main reasons Wally wanted to exhibit them publicly was that he wanted to hear what people saw in them.

“It’s a way to open a dialogue,” he said. “I’m excited to hear what people have to say about these.”

The show is the first in the expanded Gonzo Gallery space, now operating on short-term leases in two vacant storefronts on the 600 block of Hyman Avenue beside the Aspen Art Museum.

“I love art with a story and I love Wally’s story,” Gonzo Gallery director D.J. Watkins said. “This guy is a genius.”

After “Wildfire Spirits,” the gallery is slated to open an exhibition by Aspen-based artist Laura Betti on Feb. 12. The adjacent space is hosting political artwork by printmaker Tom Benton, a tie-in with Watkins’ recently released documentary film “Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb,” about Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 campaign for Pitkin County Sheriff.


Courtesy photo

What: ‘Wildfire Spirits’ by Wally

Where: The Gonzo Gallery

When: Through Feb. 7; socially distanced opening reception Wednesday Dec. 30, 5-10 p.m.

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