The Wildling Museum, Solvang, California
Six feet of projected and themed burning ground.
Six feet of Burning Ground

Building Six Feet of Burning Ground

So many projects start with asking “What if….?” Six Feet of Burning Ground did just that. What if a wildfire had blazed across a landscape and 15 minutes later you had gone in, cut out a square of still-burning ground and magically airlifted to a museum while it was still smoldering? Visually, It would be an unsettling but beautiful chunk of devastation that would exemplify the pressure of Climate Change – the theme of the exhibition at The Wildling Museum in Solvang, California.

Artifacts from wildfires
The “treasures” we discovered at wildfire burn sites.

But how do you make six feet of burning ground? For us, The Environment Makers, it was the perfect project for combining the theming talents of Kym Cochran and the projection abilities of Jonathan PJ Smith

We started the process by scouring recently burned roadside areas, collecting buckets of ashes, scorched rocks, and blackened branches along with other detritus such as beer bottles and cans deformed by the intense heat of the fire. Including the latter in the installation would add to the story by introducing a human element. For the main feature, Jon and Ethan Turpin (who provided the projected backdrop) combed a recent burn for two ruined but artistically beautiful tree stumps that would play off each other in form, shape, and size. It’s strange how objects that have no intrinsic value become precious when a purpose is assigned to them. 

In many ways, Six Feet of Burning Ground was similar to The Ember Field we’d worked on for The Burn Cycle Project in Buellton back in 2021. There, the field formed a kind of foreground/background to the main show. In this case, Six Feet was the main attraction.

Making dirt using expanding foam
Movie – Making dirt using expanding foam, mulch and ashes.
Installing Six Feet of Burning Ground
Movie – Installing Six Feet of Burning Ground at the Wildling.

We started with wooden frames with cardboard walls. Placing them horizontally, we coated the surfaces with expanding, black foam and scattered and threw mulch, pebbles, and ash over it at the optimum moment (see “Making Fake Dirt”). It looked surprisingly real.

Kym filling in the joints.
Kym Cochran filling the dirt joints.

On-site, at the Wilding Museum, we screwed all the dirt pieces into place, carefully placed our burned treasures to match the storyline and fall of gravity, then Kym filled the joints between the panels to match. 

Adding yellow paint to the burned branches
Adding yellow paint to the burned branches added intensity.

To make the fire projection on the burnt woodwork properly,  it first had to be faux-finished with licks of white paint to increase screen gain (on the natural black of charred wood the projection is too weak). Afterwards, Kym added touches of yellow and orange to bring it to life. Now that everything was ready, Jon began the projection mapping process by painstakingly adding the rich and disturbing glow of embers along the lengths of the branches and stumps, with a few licks of intermittent flame for good effect.  

Like the real thing, Six Feet of Burning Ground is both disturbing and compelling. 

Video mapping the embers on to the burned wood
Video mapping the embers onto the burned wood.
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