Signal Fire Arts – Unwalking the West

WCMT Fellowship 2016 research: innovation in participation in public urban green space.

Portland, Oregon, US.

My last meet up in Portland Oregon is with Ryan Pierce, co-founder of Signal Fire.  Signal Fire had run one of their ‘Unwalking the West’ events as part of the Alliance for Artists Communities Conference in Portland that I attended, and a few artists in Portland had recommended them as a group I should meet as part of my research, and for my interest in the use of public land by and for artists.

signal-fireSignal Fire is a Portland-based residency that connects artists and writers with the North American wilds through extended backpacking trips and hiking book clubs, providing wilderness residencies and retreats for artists of all disciplines.

Signal Fire’s 2016 residency theme Unwalking the West, traces the routes of famous explorers in the reverse direction, exploring the legacy of conquest and settlement in the present day challenges facing the American West.

The group’s objective is ‘to connect artists to wild places, to build the cultural value of the natural world’.

‘We believe in artists as agents of change. We utilize public lands to advocate for equitable access to, and protection of, these vital places’.

I met up with Ryan Pierce in a cafe in the industrial area of Portland, right where the trains roll through in between the huge warehouses, with their langorous, emotive horns sounding over and over as the freights travel slowly right through the city centre.


Ryan’s ‘day job’ is painting – he makes paintings, texts, and journeys inspired by the resilience of the natural world. He has exhibited internationally and is currently Artist-in-Residence at Portland State University’s School of Art and Design.

Signal Fire was started in 2008 by Ryan and partner Amy Harwood, an environmental activist and public land advocate, both ‘avid backbackers’.

“Amy was very involved in activism and direct action – forest defense work. She is involved with BARK, a ‘watchdog’ for the National Forest, which is trying to stop natural gas pipelines and undertakes supervision and monitoring in relation to commercial tree logging and roadbuilding.”

Signal Fire began on a very low budget, with their initial Outpost Residency in 2009 providing artists with large tents out in the wildness as a live/work space for a week, along with food and maps, and a basic support structure for exploring the land, nature and making work.  Building on these residencies, Signal Fire now offer different programmes over a year: week-long excursions and retreats, ‘Wide Open Studios’ for up to a month, and day hikes around Portland with a focus on reading and writing in relation to the natural world.

hraun-i-3“We walk, we canoe. Our residencies are mostly in the West, mostly remote and always on public land. We’re always exploring the nature-culture intersection. Sometimes we run an urban or day hike ‘book club’ from Portland – a reading and place event – on Mount Hood, or in Forest Park. We give out readings as a lens to see the wild landscapes.

“We used to do this kind of thing on our own, on vacation. It was our recreation activity. We’re more curious now around the idea of wilderness – of inserting artists and makers into it, and the cultural construction of it.  UnWalking The West interrogates the foundations and the myths circulating about the settlement of the West, about the attempted genocide of Native American Indians, in order to shift the dominant views of land in the American West.”

Signal Fire has three part time staff: Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, an artist and community activist, Amy and Ryan, as well as a pool of walk and trip leaders and a board of Directors.

“I was on a canoe trip on the upper Missouri in 2013 – I was reading a book about the flight of the Nez Perce from the US Cavalry and when we arrived at that point where they had crossed the river, there was no acknowledgement of that American Indian history – the dominant narrative was all about Lewis and Clark and European settlement.”

“In North America nature is romanticised and exploited simultaneously. And there can be a lot of racism in the environmental movement; we have a lot of work to do. These so called ‘unpeopled places’ – hundreds, thousands of people inhabited them up to the 1850s. What were the tribes that used to live there? Maybe a couple of people in this whole cafe that we’re sitting in, might know those names?”


The retreats and journeys are run for around 10 people per trip with 2 guides, with around 8 trips per year, to 5 or 6 regions in the West that they return to. The guides all have wilderness medical training, but the trips are not super hard physically. Participants pay on a sliding scale with a few full fellowships available. Here are the places that Signal Fire have run activities so far, taking an impressive number of people into the wildness.

Signal Fire also produce an annual publication: Leaf Litter with contributions from artists, writers and researchers.

We talk about other artists and projects around the world looking at public land, participation, about colonialism and settlers. I tell Ryan about the work of the arts and activist group Platform in London which has been such a powerful influence for me, and about their walks through the city of London drawing attention to the invisible colonial and corporate histories, of Dan Gretton’s forthcoming books I, You, We, Them, and about my collaboration with artist Sheila Ghelani on the project Common Salt, which focuses on telling the story of the Great Hedge of India – a 2,500 mile long taxation line and barrier administered by the East India Company during British colonial rule in India, and partly responsible for millions of deaths from famine, of which virtually no evidence remains. We talk about the importance of telling these stories, of articulating the complexity of places across time and of our responsibility to history, to public lands, to nature.

“Artists have the opportunity and the capacity of ‘storytelling’ – the chance to open up these histories and tell these stories.

“I’m thinking about doing a camp out at Mt St Helens. There was an old grove of Big Leaf Maple that was illegally logged and used to make guitars. I have thought of organising a concert there with guitars made from the wood that was logged there – a kind of healing concert.”

I’m so glad to have sat with Ryan for an hour or so – more than inspiring. I go out into the drizzling rain, past the industrial warehouses, the men wandering up the railroad track wrapped in blankets, the trains sounding their mournful horns as they haul between the buildings; everything passing through, on the move.

I’ve ended my research going out into the West, leaving the urban green and out to the wildness, the public common wildness, and to the vital need ‘to unwalk’ – to address and redress – the stories and life of our land, of our time.


All photographs and images are from Signal Fire’s website

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