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Regional Interests

Playa artist retreat center survives wildfires and coronavirus restrictions

Field biologists Mike Venarsky and Morgan Ford experience their first residency at Playa, where artists and scientists meet.
Field biologists Mike Venarsky and Morgan Ford experience their first residency at Playa, where artists and scientists meet.

The Playa retreat center in south-central Oregon has been threatened by wildfire before. The Toolbox Fire burned through the region 19 years ago. Last fall, the center canceled workshops because of the Brattain Fire. And now the Bootleg Fire sits on the edge of the area. Elizabeth Quinn, interim executive director of Playa, joins us to talk about how the fires and the pandemic have affected the retreat center.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The Playa retreat center in south-central Oregon is a place for artists and scientists to collaborate and recharge and it’s been threatened by wildfire before. The Toolbox Fire burned through the region 19 years ago. Last fall the center canceled workshops because of the Britain Fire and now the Bootleg Fire is threatening the area. Elizabeth Quinn is the interim executive director of Playa. She joins us now to talk about fire and the future of the retreat center. It’s good to have you on Think Out Loud.

Elizabeth Quinn: Thank you, Dave. It’s good to be here.

Miller: I gave a short, one-sentence introduction to Playa, but I don’t imagine it captured what you actually do there. What’s the mission of Playa?

Quinn: Well, Playa today is a center for the intersection of art and science. We’re focusing on the Great Basin; the landscape, bringing the arts and sciences together, that nexus. And exploring that nexus and what we can learn to improve our communities, our environment, our landscape. Taking some good deep dives in that nexus is what we have been doing. But we’re expanding that today.

Miller: Alright, we can hear more about the expansion as we go. But let’s turn now to the Bootleg Fire which started far from where you are, far from Summer Lake. What was your first indication that it might actually get all the way to where you were?

Quinn: Oh, I’m not sure I know. I don’t even know that I know it’s there now. Even though it’s not very far. You don’t see it; it’s up on the ridge. And so it’s kind of hard to conceptualize sometimes, when you’re down below the ridge at 2000 ft., that it’s burned as much acreage as it has. But the evening of July 6, I did send a text to our site manager who’s also a long-term firefighter and said, “What am I seeing coming up over the ridge? Is that a weird storm or is that fire?” And that he confirmed in fact it was fire from Sprague River. And I thought, well that’s a long ways away, we won’t have a problem with that. But then I think it was just another week, the 13th, that things started to get much more tense on our side. And we were hearing from firefighters that it was starting to get close and there’s a fear of spotting. In fact, that is the news today, that there are structural crews there today, up above, looking out for private property and afraid that spotting will come over the ridge.

Miller: As I mentioned in my intro, fires are not new to the area. Even if the size and the intensity of this one has been unusual. What have you experienced there in the past?

Quinn: Well, in 2002, I was there when the Winter Rim and Toolbox Fire came through. That was a very different experience than today, than the fire we’re experiencing today, the Bootleg Fire. The Bootleg Fire is huge, but the Winter Rim and Toolbox Fire had no.. there was no one there. And there [were] no evacuation notices. Certainly, people came out to fight it but they weren’t there maybe for a week, a week and a half. And when they told me to leave, they drove by and put their finger out the window and made a circular movement and said, “get on out.” And I did. So today, we’ve moved from [that to] evacuation notices, phones blaring and beeping at different times.. One time we were having a happy hour with self-directed residents, who had all come out, and everyone’s phones lit up. But it was for, I believe it was for the Bootleg, but it was far back and it didn’t seem to be a threat. So it is a much different experience today. And thankfully so. There are people on the ground ready to fight for, for Playa, for homes in the area. And it’s been wonderful to offer Playa as a place for firefighters to set up, to fight this fire. So, again, a very different experience.

Miller: So Playa, your land or buildings there, have become a kind of staging area for part of the firefighting infrastructure?

Quinn: That’s correct, particularly our own high desert rural protection district, along with structural crews that have come in. We have been, obviously, allowing them to be there on the property with different vehicles and trucks and equipment and [to] access some of the things that we have as resources. So we have a pond and we’ve gotta hose coming out of the pond. We’ve got a fire hydrant that they can pull out of. We’ve offered showers and laundry to some of them. And we also have our site manager, [as] I said, is a long-term firefighter and he’s been just an amazing liaison for all of those groups along with Playa. He’s been a hero.

Miller: What was supposed to be happening at Playa over the last few weeks?

Quinn: Oh.. Well, [laughs] we were supposed to be having self-directed residents. So, people who want to come spend time and space and immerse in their own work, arrived last night. They would have been through until Sunday. Last weekend we were supposed to have “IN A LANDSCAPE” come, that is Hunter Noack, a good friend of Playa. And our community was going to be invited in to experience our campus and that event and...

Miller: He’s the musician who puts a grand piano in extraordinary places all around Oregon and then people can come and listen, right?

Quinn: That’s right. Yes. Wonderful. We had about 150 people coming. We also were renting cabins and we had a special dinner planned. It was a bit of a fundraiser for Playa. So that has been canceled. We also canceled our August 7 event, which was another fundraising event, special event, [to] invite our community in, have people rent cabins and have a special dinner. And Laura Gibson, the musician from Portland, and our own Oregon Poet Laureate, Anis Mojgani, were going to come. So we’ve had to cancel that too. Just not knowing what the smoke or the fire condition will be.

Miller: When did you get the [Level 3] “go now” order?

Quinn: The “go now” order was the afternoon of the 14th. The 13th we went into Level 2. And that evening it got a little tense. There was definitely a weather storm, thunder and lightning that happened -- that felt unworldly in a way. I had never seen anything like that. It felt different. And it was from the fire itself, its own weather system. Then the next day things amped up a little more in the afternoon and there were crews all over the place. And I didn’t see any flame. Having done the fire back in ‘02, having experienced such big flames so close, I thought, “Really? Do we have to leave?” But then I spoke with the fire crews and they were, they don’t need us in their way. [Laughs.]

Miller: So, you did go then. When you got the “go now” order.

Quinn: Yes.

Miller: Because that’s something that, when we’ve talked to people in the last couple weeks, not everybody has made that same decision, because of pets or livestock or thinking, “I want to stay too to be here for” .. whatever. You left.

Quinn: We left.. we did come back. So, it’s not definitive. I will tell you that in ‘02, when they spun their finger and said, “go,” no questions asked, easy. I was out. This is different. It’s different because it’s like you want to see it, you want to know it’s fully threatened before you go. And it’s hard to leave so many things. It’s hard to walk away from Playa and not think there isn’t something I can do to help it be okay. But you have to trust, right? And you have to also trust your own intuition. I think that it will be okay. I can come back for a moment, regroup, get what I need to go and then leave again and be out of the way of the people who are doing their most and their best to help us and keep things safe.

Miller: Obviously, right now these fires are preventing people from going there. But do you think that the fires will actually fuel the work of artists or scientists when they can come back?

Quinn: That’s a great question. I think so. We had a workshop, July 8 to July 12, as the Bootleg was burning and as it was smokey and ash was falling. And everyone there was grateful to be there. I think [they] were learning things about that place at that time that they couldn’t [otherwise], right? And it was safe. It was okay. And with Playa, as a center for the intersection of art and science, we have this opportunity to look from the inside at disturbance ecology in such a rare way. And from the campus, we can really look at all of these different fires that we’ve talked about and there are others that we haven’t talked about today, and learn so much. And learn from one another as artists and scientists for a really full body of work around disturbance ecology. That’s sort of what we’re thinking. Let’s lean into this. And we feel and hear that other people want to lean into it with us.

Miller: Disturbance ecology. I’m curious how much climate change writ large has been a specific subject of the work that people who are going [to Playa] have been doing for the last couple years.

Quinn: Most definitely. And more and more and more. You know, we would speak about climate change, we would speak about the environment, early on. I was involved with climate early on and it was certainly a focus and a motivating factor. But it feels, as the wheel turns, it is a huge piece and part of the work of so many artists and scientists today. Because of that, it is certainly the focus for Playa. Being able to talk about that in a myriad of ways.

Miller: We’re going to be talking on Monday with a Portland psychologist; one of his specialties now is dealing with climate grief or climate anxiety. People who are dealing with our climate crisis or climate change in a very personal way and an intense way. And he’s helping them work through that. I’m wondering how much grief or hope you see in the work of the people who go to Playa these days.

Quinn: Oh, that’s a fascinating question. I think that there is a lot of processing about climate change and about the impacts and different people are facing that differently. There is definitely grief. There’s definitely hope. There’s definitely courage. There’s definitely people who are distraught. But I think that the balm of science and art is that we process through it. In a place like Playa, where you’re in a group of people that are doing similar things, you get to process that together in a way and bring it forward with the organization. I’m a creative person so I think that’s as good as it gets with grief and hope.

Miller: My understanding is the pandemic forced you and so many people, institutions to pause. And then the PPP [ Paycheck Protection Program] and CARES Act [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act] money helped keep you afloat. All of which, it seems, gave you some time to rethink the organization and to re-imagine a different future. How is Playa going to change in the coming years?

Quinn: Well, it’s true. Because of the support -- stimulus monies, the OCF [Oregon Community Foundation], the CARES Act -- we were able to really get through a year and dive deep into who we are and what we want to be. So we really have begun and this year we are putting down the tracks for more programming that really dives into these natural assets that we believe exist at Playa uniquely. We’ve formed a science council that is helping us look at those deeply and figure out how we can do programming around those. We’ve traditionally been a residency program and offered supported free time and space at Playa. We’re diversifying that into these events with our community and into programming that really does look hard at these natural assets and exploring those independently. It’s really exciting and we’re gaining momentum. And even though there’s the stops and the starts and the stops and the starts, I think all of us, the staff and board at Playa, feel invigorated. Which is an odd thing to say at this time of .. everything happening. But invigorated by the direction. And again, it makes it easy for me to say, “Let’s lean into this together.”

Miller: Elizabeth Quinn. Thanks very much for joining us.

Quinn: Thank you.

Miller: As I mentioned on Monday in the show, with the daily drumbeat of wildfires and drought and deadly heat, many Oregonians are thinking about climate change in a much more personal way these days. We want to know if you’ve been dealing with depression or anxiety in the face of the accelerating climate crisis and what’s giving you hope? You can leave us a voicemail right now at 503-293-1983.

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

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