Recently, Handsome Husband and I stood slack-jawed before the large charcoal drawings of Marlene Mueller, Wayne State College Art Professor. Beautiful in their terrifying depiction of death by fire of an old farm building, these drawings had us mesmerized, so much so that a month after we first saw them at the Norfolk Arts Center in Norfolk, Ne., we're still talking about them.
©2008 Marlene Mueller Apocalypse 32x44 Charcoal
"Into the Ashes" is a visual record of Mueller’s experience as a volunteer firefighter. Rather than glamorize the heroic efforts of men and women in the act of saving, she uses charcoal to render stinging smoke, crackling heat and the hissing of evaporating water as flames eat a structure down to its ashes.
©2008 Marlene Mueller Cumulus 32x44 Charcoal
These drawings are beautiful. Charcoal, a remnant of the burning process, is used here to create moments of power and grace, the balance between what fire and water will do to, and for, each other.
©2007 Marlene Mueller Roar 44x32 Charcoal
Looking for beauty in the destructive forces of heat and flame is not something we’re used to. And yet, there we were, HH and I, moving back and forth from image to image, following the fire as it ate at the timbers of a once useful structure. And as I write this, I realize we weren’t following fire at all. We were taken in by Mueller’s expert weaving of charcoal into textures and rhythms and smudges, calling us into and away from each piece before we felt heat or absorbed the acrid smell of smoke into our clothes. That's something too for an artist to reach across time and experience and exact a toll on the memories our senses have of a too-close experience with fire.
My knee-jerk reaction to defining beauty would most likely include rich color, a calming sense of rhythm or texture, a perception of atmosphere to be breathed in deeply. In a daring mood maybe I would include tension, asymmetry, maybe even dissonance if carried out in a harmonious way. Something to hang above my couch and make me feel good.
Mueller has done what all proper artists should do. She has called us to look more closely, to consider more consciously the world around us. Not just the lovely, the soft or precious, but every aspect of the cycle of what exists, or ceases to exist.