From the Heart, Ashes to Art

By Ann Gill (M.A., ’76)

Alumnus Tim O’Hara and his friend, Lori Joseph, turned the tragedy of Colorado wildfires into inspiration for a wonderfully generous creative endeavor. It started relatively small after the 2012 High Park fire in Northern Colorado and grew into an extraordinary endeavor this year in the wake of the Cameron Peak and nearby wildfires.

painting of a columbine
“Colorado Strong” painting by CSU alumnus and former faculty member, Bob Coonts.

O’Hara is an outstanding photographer, and Joseph is a photo stylist. After working together on a photo shoot in Vail in 2012, Joseph visited the O’Hara home in northwest Fort Collins, where the High Park fire was visible from the house. Watching it gave her the idea of turning the tragedy into an art project using ashes from the fire. The Ashes to Art Project was born. Sale of the artwork made with ashes from that fire netted $16,000, which was donated to the Poudre Canyon Volunteer Fire Protection District.

The devastating Cameron Peak fire in 2020 left the largest area of scorched earth in Colorado’s history. In its wake, O’Hara and Joseph began the 2021 Ashes to Art Project. Artists from across the United States and in other countries were invited to donate art that incorporated ashes from that fire. Approximately 80 artists created nearly 100 pieces of art, which then were sold in an online auction in May. Proceeds from the auction will be donated to the two volunteer fire departments, Poudre Canyon Fire Protection District and Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department, both of which spent months working to contain and eventually extinguish the fires.

While one of the artists, former CSU Art Department faculty member, Bob Coonts (B.A., ’63), has direct ties to CSU, most do not. But they became part of this project because, as O’Hara explains, “these artists have a spiritual quality, believing ‘I have this gift and I can give back!’” One of this year’s artists, Syjuan Ren, is from Great Britain and has pieces hanging in Windsor Castle; O’Hara explains, “apparently, Queen Elizabeth is a fan.”

clay pot
Pot by Eric Newman

Not only did the artists donate their time, talent, and artistic supplies, but some spent $500 or more to frame their pieces and ship them to Colorado. One artist, a photographer, embedded ash into the paper on which he placed his photograph. He was not able to afford to ship it, however, so Joseph paid the shipping costs

The art pieces are wide-ranging, including not only paintings, drawings, jewelry, pottery, and photographs but also a knife handle, quilt, and woven alpaca hat. The artists made the ashes part of their art in various ways. They mixed ashes in paint and ink. The alpaca hat has burned wood pieces as buttons, and a piece of jewelry has sealed and polished ash as gems.

O’Hara describes the Ashes to Art Project as “the best one I have ever done” as it has “the most potential to do good.” The two fire departments are composed of volunteer firefighters who risked their lives for months. The wildfires were devasting to these brave and selfless individuals who saved not only CSU’s Mountain Campus but also the land around Horsetooth Reservoir and other much-loved and visited areas.

Moose drawing
“Charcoal Moose” painting by Anne London, based on a photo by O’Hara

Although the online auction is over, you still can donate to these two volunteer fire departments, referencing the 2021 Ashes to Art Project. If you choose to do so, donate directly to the Poudre Canyon Fire Protection District and/or to the Northern Colorado Community Foundation, specifying the Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department.

O’Hara, Joseph, and all those who participated in this project truly have made hope rise from the ashes and brought inspiration to many.

Video by East Coast artist Bethany Primrose