Part One – John Vaillant on Jessie Homer French’s Mojave Burning

If the Sky Were Orange: Art in the Time of Climate Change

Part One – A Burning Legacy: John Vaillant on Jessie Homer French’s Mojave Burning 

Fire is a natural feature of many, but not all, forest systems around the globe. However, due to the superabundance of industrial carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and the surface heating (and drying) it enables, destructive fires are now occurring in forests where fire has historically been absent. French’s painting of Joshua trees burning en masse in the Mojave Desert represents one among a growing number of radical discontinuities imposed by climate change: the world burns differently now. When I saw this painting, I resonated with it immediately because where I live, in the rainforest of the Pacific Northwest, we, too, are experiencing fires where they have seldom, if ever, burned before. The event described below took place in June 2015. 

It was early and the tent was orange so I assumed it must be sunlight shining through the fabric. When I crawled out, I saw the trees, the shoreline, the air as far as I could see—everything suffused with orange light and redolent with smoke. To the east, above a nearby island, was the rising sun—a pale and faceless coin so unlike the sun it led a neighbor to wonder aloud if it was the moon we were looking at. An older woman camping nearby said it reminded her of the sky during the London Blitz. Before us, the sea lay nearly motionless beneath an oily calm; sound did not carry in the normal way, nor did light refract. No birds sang. This place we have camped for twenty years, a place of peace and profound beauty, had been transformed while we slept. A firelit pall had settled over the island, the coast, and with it, an awful, waiting stillness. We would soon learn that, miles away, all around us, wildfires were burning in the rainforest. Should the island ignite, there was nowhere to go but into the sea. I took stock of my wife and children, of our situation, and I wondered to myself, perhaps this is how it ends.

Excerpt ©️ John Vaillant, 2023

Jessie Homer French, Mojave Burning, 2021, Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 in., Collection of Corinne and Laurent Opman, Beverly Hills 

About Jessie Homer French

Jessie Homer French is a self-taught, self-proclaimed “regional narrative painter.” Her recent work, including Mojave Burning, depicts the wildfires increasingly seen near her home in Mountain Center, California. French’s simplified artistic language and flat colors belie her paintings’ thoughtful meditations on issues like death, rural life, and environmental destruction. French’s work was featured in the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022. View other works by the artist via VSF’s gallery.

About John Vaillant

John Vaillant is a Vancouver-based author and journalist. His acclaimed nonfiction works include The Golden Spruce (W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), The Tiger (Knopf, 2010), and Fire Weather: A True Story from A Hotter World (Knopf, 2023), which examines the events surrounding the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire that overran the hub of Canada’s petroleum industry and displaced 88,000 people in a single day.

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