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Photographer finds prairie fires ‘fertile flames’

March 28, 2007 By Barbara Wolff

Who hasn’t sat mesmerized for hours in front of a roaring fire? There’s definitely something hypnotic about it, a fact not lost on Wisconsin photographer Jill Metcoff.

“I am captivated by the sight of fire, the speed of its trip through the landscape, the swirling white wreaths it leaves behind like morning fog,” she says.

Metcoff’s black-and-white photographs of controlled burning are on exhibition now in the Arboretum’s Steinhauer Trust Gallery.

“Wall of Flame, Arena,†a black-and-white photograph by Jill Metcoff.

“Wall of Flame, Arena,” a black-and-white photograph by Jill Metcoff, is included in the exhibit, “Fertile Flames: Making Art as Prairies Burn” at the Arboretum’s Steinhauer Trust Gallery through Sunday, April 29.

Prairies need periodic burnings for optimal health. In days of yore, prairie fires erupted spontaneously, and in some places still do, bringing danger and travail to the humans who live there.

Ideally, for both safety and effectiveness, skilled burn teams take care of the proceedings. Metcoff has gone with some of those teams during the last four years “with the understanding that I would leave before the fire enveloped me and that I wouldn’t add to their worries,” she says.

Metcoff’s in-person introduction to burnings was her own meadow, part of her 6-acre prairie restoration near Spring Green. She calls the experience life-changing.

“The ancients celebrated the mystery of fire. While it destroys, it also replenishes. Where it burns, prairies flourish,” she says. “Over the last four years I have developed a hands-in-the-dirt closeness to the prairie, combined with more than 30 years’ experience behind the lens and in the darkroom. As an artist I am nourished by both the fire and the land.”

“Fertile Flames: Making Art as Prairies Burn” will be on exhibition through Sunday, April 29. The show is free and all are welcome. For more information, contact the Arboretum Visitor Center, 263-7888, or visit