The Art

Forest Fire

Roger Brown’s painting Forest Fire presents a mysterious scene. Cloud-like trees arranged in four neatly scalloped rows form a vast landscape of overlapping hills. Each tree line contains the same unnatural turquoise hue, fading in value from stark black in the bottom front to a pale bluish-green in the distance. Partially obscured by the darkest row in the foreground, a narrow road spans the width of the painting, providing a path for vehicles to travel through the forest. Appearing from the left, as if in motion, the front end of a truck takes its place behind two cars and the tail end of a bus that is already disappearing from view on the right. The windows of each vehicle are bright yellow, revealing the dark silhouettes of anonymous passengers distinguished only by intimated hairstyles and hand gestures, as if characters in a shadow play.

Breaking the hypnotic spell of this striking scene are three additional figures dotting the distant treetops, each one distinctly animated. Two of them face forward with waving arms—one holding a firearm—while the third, also armed, appears focused on a sight beyond the picture plane. Their physical isolation and expressive body language read like vital clues, but the message is unclear. Perhaps they are lost and looking for directions, or are forest rangers trying to warn passengers on the road of danger ahead. Guardrails line the road, indicating adjacency to a steep gorge or cliff, adding to this sense of urgency. Building further anticipation, a foreboding cloud of dark smoke in the upper right-hand corner rises above the trees and extends leftward across the sky. Similar to the tree lines and road, the billowing smoke produces a strong horizontal rhythm that reinforces a sense of linear movement and contributes to an overall compositional harmony. Fire, though hinted at, is notably absent from the painting.

The carefully constructed and dramatically tense scene in Forest Fire is evocative of a stage set. Like an isolated act in a play, it engages the viewer’s curiosity by combining visual clues and action, but does not tell a complete story. The landscape suggests a continuation beyond its edges, with the characters within preoccupied by an “off-stage” drama. Roger Brown’s theatrical style allows room for interpretation by directing the viewer to search beyond the visible to find meaning, perhaps as a way of pointing to parallel conditions or “stories” that exist in the real world.

Particularly inspired by travels across America, Roger Brown used his art to reflect on historical and current events. Forest Fire echoes American traditions of landscape painting in which the countryside was depicted with vast, unspoiled expanses. However, this painting calls attention to the tensions between nature and culture that can lead to alteration or destruction.

National Visual Arts Standards

Anchor Standard 1: Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work.
Essential Question: Why do artists follow or break from established traditions?

Anchor Standard 2: Organize and develop artistic ideas and work.
Essential Questions: How do objects and places shape lives and communities? How do artists create works of art that effectively communicate?

Anchor Standard 7: Perceive and analyze artistic work.
Essential Questions: How do life experiences influence the way you relate to art? How does learning about art impact how we perceive the world? What can we learn from our responses to art?

The Artist

Much of Roger Brown’s work draws from his memories of growing up in Alabama. As a child he took art classes and appreciated handmade folk objects that were characteristic of the American South. Despite his initial plans to become a preacher, he decided on an art career and moved to Chicago. He studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he drew inspiration from early Italian Renaissance painting, Surrealism, and the art of Edward Hopper, Grant Wood, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Like his contemporaries at the school, he was influenced by the mentorship and art-collecting habits of artist and professor Ray Yoshida. He also worked at a decal company where he encountered a hard-edged, airbrushed style of commercial art. Brown participated in Hairy Who exhibitions and became associated with Chicago Imagism. Hallmarks of his art are flattened picture planes produced by parallel sight lines with no vanishing points, and figures that are lit from behind and theatrically staged. Throughout his career Brown wanted his works to have the approachability of folk art, while at the same time depicting the complexities of twentieth-century America.

Key Ideas

  • • Art inspired by theater, comics, travel and popular culture
  • • Use of color and pattern to create a stylized landscape
  • • Use of visual cues to imply action and drama
  • • Artist style that is distinguished by use of line, perspective, and color

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. What do you notice about the colors, lines, shapes and perspective in this painting? How do they contribute to the overall mood?
  2. 2. What story do you think is unfolding in this scene? What clues lead you to think so?
  3. 3. How would you describe the relationships that the people depicted in Forest Fire have with each other? What about their relationship to the environment? If the people could speak, what do you think they would say?
  4. 4. What do you think about the title Forest Fire for this painting? How does it affect your understanding of the subject matter depicted within? If you gave this painting a different title, what would it be?