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Amid Flames and Fuel, Artist Wields a Pencil

October 12, 2003|Andrew Kramer | Associated Press Writer

SISTERS, Ore. — Author and illustrator Taylor Morrison is far from the world of children tucked in bed, libraries on a rainy day or classrooms of tots sitting in tiny chairs -- the places where his books are often read.

This afternoon, he's high in the Cascade Range, on a dirt road choked with dust and smoke, sketching wild-land firefighters at work. With a few deft twists of the wrist, unshaven men with soot-streaked faces, bulldozer drivers and daredevil air tanker pilots take shape in Morrison's sketchbook. It's a world of sharp tools, heavy equipment and flying embers.

Morrison witnessed it this summer while researching a book explaining techniques of wild-land firefighting for 8- to 10-year-olds. Wildfires have become such a common occurrence that a book is needed to explain how they are fought, he said.

Morrison works by sketching from real-life scenes. He jots down a face in seconds, and a scene with figures, trees, mountains and flames in minutes.

He travels in U.S. Forest Service SUVs with fire officials. On a trip to a 90,000-acre fire outside Sisters in central Oregon, the smoke became so thick that he couldn't see a dozen yards away. "I did a quick sketch in pencil," said Morrison, who wore a fire-retardant suit and hard hat. "A few minutes later, I couldn't see my sketchpad in front of my face. And I smelled like a charcoal briquette."

His flickering-fast drawing style comes in handy on the fire lines, where he is hustled along by jittery fire officials -- and by approaching fire.

Morrison draws with pencil, pen and colored pencil on the fire lines; in the evenings in his motel room, he lays down color studies in orange, red, white and gray in diminutive paintings of flame.

Later, in his farmhouse studio in the Willamette Valley west of Portland, he studies the sketches to compose paintings for each double page of the book.

Morrison, 31, said he was thrilled by the challenge of capturing the color of the flames and the backdrop of ice-covered mountains and sylvan green shades of the pine forest.

"I've never seen colors like this. I mean, I've seen fire, but never 40,000 acres burning. It's just mind-blowing," he said.

The firefighters in yellow shirts, with their support of aerial bombers, clattering helicopters and odd vehicles such as a "skidgeon" -- a cross between a bulldozer and a fire engine used only for wild-land fires -- also captured his imagination. He hopes to capture all of it for children in his book, which will be published in about two years.

His previous six books, published by established houses such as Houghton Mifflin, are in libraries around the country.

Morrison turned up at the Fawn Peak fire in Washington in July, where U.S. Forest Service information officer Chris Papen greeted his idea enthusiastically.

Papen believed that the book would serve the usual purpose of advocating fire prevention. But he hopes that it would teach about the natural role of wildfire.

One advantage of working on the scene is immediate feedback from those who live and breathe the smoky world of wildfire.

"I know I'm doing a good job drawing their equipment when the firefighters themselves like the pictures," he said.

Morrison said he's so excited about his project that he hardly considers the risk -- but he takes note when he sees his subjects in risky situations. "I interviewed a guy named Lucky who flies an aerial tanker," he said. "I guess you have to have that name if you fly into forest fires."

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