Artistic ruins on display

Published 9:53 pm Thursday, May 1, 2014

An exhibition opening Saturday at Tidewater Community College’s Visual Arts Center will take audiences inside the burn scar of the Great Dismal Swamp.

Virginia Beach artist Pam Ponce worked with staff from the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and the Youth Conservation Corps to document the burn areas from the 2008 and 2011 wildfires.

A newspaper article about a company giving tours into the charred swamp after the earlier fire first sparked her interest in the subject matter, Ponce said.

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“For some reason, I thought it would be interesting to follow how that area was going to regenerate,” she said.

Ponce said she contacted Bryan Poovey, a forester at the refuge with whom she had a connection, and he took her on an initial expedition to see the fire’s legacy, “particularly off Corapeake Ditch.”

It was an area where the rare Atlantic white cedar once thrived. Ponce decided to document in photographs how the wilderness regenerated over the next five years.

“I did that for two years,” she said, “but then we had another fire in 2011. The idea of documenting the regeneration was gone.”

Ponce began to learn how man has altered the amount of water in the swamp by draining it for logging, and how that is thought to have increased the prevalence and severity of wildfires there.

Traveling into the burn scar after the 2011 fire, she said, “The first word that comes to mind is surreal.” The peat had burned down so low that “trees appeared to be walking on their roots.”

Ponce said that she wanted to show this to the general public — a part of the world requiring permission to venture into, if one even has the mind to do so.

“I wanted to show people the cycle and kind of show the dichotomy of this destruction,” she said.

“On one hand, you are struck by the vast desolation of the area. On the other hand, it’s strangely beautiful.”

But how would she show it? Ponce learned how to photograph panoramas, she said. She also started thinking about installations.

Finally, Ponce said, Deloras Freeman, the refuge’s visitor services specialist, organized for corps members to retrieve some of the charred stumps, which ended up in Ponce’s garage.

“They (the corps volunteers) wore waders and used handsaws to get the stumps out in several pieces,” Ponce said. “My job was to get them back together — so they would stand.”

The public is invited to Saturday’s free opening reception for the exhibition at 7 p.m., preceded by an informal gallery talk at 6:30 p.m.

The Visual Arts Center is at 340 High St., Portsmouth, where the exhibition, including Ponce’s panoramic photographs, prints, educational panels and sculptural elements — including several charred stumps in a symbolic circle in the main gallery — will remain through June 19.

“I want them to have a respect for nature and realize that we are all interconnected,” Ponce said of her hopes for the audience.

“People want to look at art because they want to look at beautiful sunsets, but certainly, destruction is part of what keeps that going.”

Also, Ponce added, “You have to know something if you want to preserve it.”