The arts can play a role in helping communities heal from trauma. Since 2019, the University of Tennessee Libraries, the City of Gatlinburg, and the Anna Porter Public Library have been working to promote healing from the catastrophic Chimney Tops 2 wildfires that swept through the Great Smoky Mountains in November of 2016, killing fourteen people, devastating mountain communities, and forcing thousands to evacuate.
A new project uses art to help the community heal from the trauma of those experiences. An art installation opening August 1 at the Anna Porter Public Library and an online digital exhibition feature artworks that document the devastating impact of the wildfires and the mountain community’s response.
The art project sprang from an earlier collaboration, Rising from the Ashes: The Chimney Tops 2 Wildfires Oral History Project, that recorded interviews with individuals who experienced the wildfires or their aftermath. Rising from the Ashes collected close to 150 audio and video interviews with those who lost homes and businesses, first responders, recovery specialists and representatives from charitable and volunteer organizations, government officials, fire and forestry experts, scientists, artists, lawyers, journalists, clergy, health care and mental health professionals, educators, and others. Those firsthand accounts have been preserved in UT’s Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives as a lasting record of the community’s experience of the wildfires. The oral history interviews are also freely available on the Rising from the Ashes website at rfta.lib.utk.edu.
In 2020, the UT Libraries, the City of Gatlinburg, and the Anna Porter Public Library received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to further promote healing from the tragic events of 2016. The grant from NEA’s Our Town program, which seeks to strengthen communities through artistic and creative engagement, allowed the project team to commission artworks inspired by the firsthand accounts gathered through the earlier oral history project.
Drawing on those personal stories, illustrators and editorial cartoonists with deep ties to the mountains and the region—Paige Braddock, Marshall Ramsey, and Danny Wilson—created more than 40 drawings that capture both the heartbreaking devastation of the wildfires and the heroic and compassionate acts of community members. (Watch interviews with the artists here.) Former Knoxville News Sentinel editorial cartoonist Charlie Daniel generously contributed two illustrations he created and published at the time of the wildfires.
Selected drawings from that collection are now part of a display titled Wildfire Recovery through Art and Public Memory at the Anna Porter Public Library in Gatlinburg. A digital exhibition at rfta-artists.lib.utk.edu reproduces all artworks created for the project. A printed catalog of the collection, Rising from the Ashes: The Chimney Tops 2 Wildfires in Memory and Art, is forthcoming this fall from the University of Tennessee Press.
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