Elsa Munoz and the regenerative effects of 'Controlled Burns'

Brandt-Roberts Galleries in the Short North hosts a solo exhibition of the Chicago artist's captivating oil paintings depicting prescribed fires

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
"The Great Turning," oil painting by Chicago artist Elsa Muñoz

One elementary school field trip forever changed the way Mexican-American artist Elsa Muñoz understood her place in the world. Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Muñoz visited the charred site of a controlled burn, where her guide explained that this short-term devastation of the forest served a larger purpose. The fire nourishes the soil and regenerates the land, over time leading to fresh growth and a renewed, healthy ecosystem. 

The ashen landscape implanted feelings of relief and hope deep within Muñoz. “I was a poetry reader, and the metaphor of it just went to my core. I immediately made that connection to my own life. I thought, perhaps the circumstances in my home environment and my larger neighborhood environment could be a metaphorical controlled burn in my life, where these fiery circumstances that I felt I was living through could be a catalyst for deep regeneration and change and beauty,” Muñoz said. “I was 9 years old, and it stayed with me. It sustained me. It was the most important metaphor that I could come across at that time, and it stayed with me through school, through adolescence, through art school. I remember being newly graduated with my BFA degree, and I had this moment where I'm like, OK, I have some tools now. What should be the first thing I paint?” 

The answer came easily: a controlled burn.

"Controlled Burn 24" by Elsa Muñoz

This month, Brandt-Roberts Galleries in the Short North hosts Muñoz’s solo exhibition, “Controlled Burns,” a series of oil paintings focused on fire and smoke as agents of purification rather than devastation.

“If people are not at all interested in ecology, all they see is a fire, and immediately the associations to fire are destruction. That was very much the message I kept getting when I was trying to first show these over 10 years ago,” said Muñoz, who eventually found a kindred spirit in local gallery owner Michelle Brandt. “There was a connection there; she was sensitive enough to understand what I'm trying to do. I've exhibited a couple of pieces from this series here and there over the years, but she was the one who said, ‘I'm going to feature you, and this is going to be your series. I'm going to give you the room.’ And putting them all together in a room, it makes such a difference. It allows me to tell the story.”

Key to that narrative are the deeper, psychological messages embedded within the paintings. “This is a conversation that goes beyond the art world,” Muñoz said. “I'm interested in the language of deep ecology, and the starting point is that we have to be in touch with our own pain in order to feel sensitive to what is going on in the world around us — the pain of other people and the pain of the Earth. And the starting point for that is to simply be in touch with our own grief first. It sounds so simple, but it is so anti-Western. It's not about consumption. It is not about accomplishment. It's about sitting with this thing that hurts you — identify it and work through it and not go around it.” 

Many of the paintings in “Controlled Burns”  begin loosely with photographs that Muñoz sources from ecology professors with whom she has built relationships. Often, the original photograph is merely a launching point as Muñoz adds layer after layer to give the painting depth. “It's a labor-intensive, slow process, which attracts me because it mimics the slowness of my subject matter — the idea of something taking so much time in order to be born, to turn into a recognizable, beautiful scene,” she said. 

Some of the paintings are defined less by the flames and more by the smoke, which, upon close inspection, reveal a wide range of colors, from purples and blues to yellows and browns. “Smoke is one of my favorite things to paint,” Muñoz said. “I love it as an agent of mystery. It is a literal veil. It evokes certain ideas of spirit, because it's this transitional material ... between the thing that is being burned and nothingness.”

"Sahumacion" by Elsa Muñoz

Muñoz titled one of the paintings “Sahumacion,” a reference to a Mexican folk medicine process in which dried herbs and flowers are set ablaze to cleanse and purify the human body. “I was thinking about setting on fire the body of the Earth in order to release and to cleanse,” she said.

Several of the pieces also feature the sun, which is often slightly obscured but still shining through the smoky haze. It’s a feature of the sky that provides Muñoz with a spiritual connection to the distant past, thinking about how indigenous peoples often assigned god-like significance to the sun as a source of life.

One painting’s glowing orb stands out from the rest, though. In “The Great Turning,” a bright red, nearly perfect circle centers a flame-licked forest floor. Muñoz began the painting in late 2020, but after finishing the fire scene, the piece still didn’t seem complete, though she didn’t know what else it needed. Setting it aside, Muñoz began listening to the audiobook World as Lover, World as Self by Joanna Macy. Reaching a chapter titled “The Great Turning,” her ears perked up.

“She talks about how this term, the great turning, refers to a turning away from the Western industrial growth society and a turn towards consciousness on a spiritual level,” Muñoz said. “As soon as I heard that title, a cadmium red sun appeared in my consciousness, and I thought, I know what's missing from that painting.” 

To Muñoz, our relationship to these celestial bodies, whether in hyper-real or imagined form, connect us to a shared past. “Beyond thinking about the specifics of nationality, what binds us all is that extremely long, cosmological view of time and ancestry, where we all come from that person who looked up at the night sky and was just amazed,” she said. “That is all of our ancestors.”