Student Artist Leaves His Mark in Ashes

June 24, 2024
Travis Truly stands in front of his mural exhibit.

An EWU student who plans to become a teacher provided the campus community with a lesson about loss and resilience.

Travis Truly, a 22-year-old senior education major with a minor in fine art, lost everything in the Gray Fire last August — devastation that was shared by residents of more than 350 homes in the greater Spokane area destroyed by two separate wildfires ranging at the same time.

Support from EWU’s Fine and Performing Arts Department gave Truly the bandwidth to translate that personal loss into a powerful, audience-interactive exhibit of drawings literally produced from the ashes of his ruined apartment. Although the display was held in early spring as part of the Student Research and Creative Works Symposium, it’s still a topic of campus conversation.

Students and faculty attending Truly's exhibit.
Students and faculty attending Truly’s exhibit, in early May.

“I was really moved by the story behind Travis’ drawings and was super happy to be able to pick one piece of his exhibit and take it with me,” said Florian Preisig, interim dean of Eastern’s College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

Truly’s representations of lost personal objects powerfully embodied memories, histories and beauty, Presig said, and were “a beautiful and moving reminder of last summer’s tragic events.”

Travis Truly pictured.
Travis Truly kept a high GPA while dealing with hardship.

Truly, who started attending EWU as a 15-year-old Running Start student, was renting a room inside a home in Medical Lake when the Gray Fire claimed almost everything he owned. (Thankfully his cat, Potato, remerged weeks later and made a comeback after suffering singed ears and other trauma.)

Losing gifts and mementos from loved ones who’d passed away was particularly difficult, Truly said, because it reignited his original grief. “It wasn’t just losing a home, it was losing everything you’d lost again.”

Photo of bunny sketch.Truly, who lacked renters’ insurance but was covered for temporary housing under his landlord’s policy, was hunkered down at the Sleep Inn Spokane Airport when he determined to channel his trauma and grief into what he hoped would be a cathartic form of art.

“I knew I needed to kind of experience loss at a smaller degree,” Truly recalls. “I had to create my own terms. So, I started to draw every object I could remember with the ash.”

This bottle was sketched by Travis Truly.

The exercise led to a “grand idea” for an exhibit that would help Truly say goodbye to a lifetime of meaningful objects while sharing his experience with the campus community.

Joshua Hobson, lecturer and EWU Gallery director, liked the idea and secured a full room inside EWU’s Art Building for what became the Things are Lovely exhibit.

That work, a labor-intensive wall of cut-out sketches mounted on red vinyl, featured more than 150 images of shoes, socks, housewares and everything else Truly recalled owning. Each drawing was created with ash from his scorched home (mixed with linseed oil and accented using a chunk of charcoal).

Boots sketched by Travis Truly.

Exhibiting Things are Lovely involved, first, Truly cutting out each sketched image. He then, with the help of his sister, mounted the cutout pages on a backdrop of fire-red vinyl spanning two walls. Finally, they painstakingly pinned each object into its silhouette.

After the opening, visitors were invited to scope out a drawing that had a particular resonance for them. They were then asked to return later to “unpin” and take their chosen drawing home. Sometimes the piece they’d originally wanted was gone, reinforcing their own connection to the losses Truly experienced. Once unpinned, each image left behind a red silhouette as evidence of the permanence of its absence.

Travis Truly's mural transformed as guests unpinned art to take home the the red silhouettes emerged.
Travis Truly’s mural transformed as guests unpinned art and red silhouettes emerged.

The exhibit also included white-ash remains of artist notebooks accented by the discolored metal spirals that once bound their pages together, while scorched personal effects lay on the floor.

Truly, who visited the exhibit daily, saw people tear up while reading his artist statement.

One memorable interaction involved five teenage visitors. Initially dismissive, their tone and language changed as they read the artist’s statement. One commented, “It’s made from the ash of his home — this guy is metal as hell.”

The teens then each selected a drawing and took the time to talk with Truly, asking questions and sharing how the exhibit affected them. “I got to see this instant change,” he recalls.

As word of Things are Lovely spread, more drawings disappeared, leaving behind a sea of red silhouettes.

Truly's mural with all the sketches gone and the red silhouettes remaining.
Travis Truly’s mural after guests to the exhibit had taken sketches home.


Preisig selected a sketch depicting a pair of boots. The artwork is now displayed in his office. “I thought the artistry on those simple shoes was remarkable,” Preisig says.

Sketched shoes that are displayed in Florian Preisig's office.
Sketched shoes that are displayed in Florian Preisig’s office.

Truly, who had post-fire regrets of not sharing earlier artwork he’d created, now regularly encounters his sketched belongings in homes and offices. “I made enough for me to run into them,” he says with a laugh. “Somebody is out there with my left sock right now – and I’m so happy that it lives on in spirit.”

Through it all, Truly has maintained a 3.83 GPA —and even directed a play — while dealing with ongoing housing insecurity. He will wrap up his bachelor’s degree with two quarters of student teaching starting this fall.

Truly says he has recently firmed up his housing situation, and is now in a furnished apartment. Among his few keepsakes is a guestbook signed by visitors to Things are Lovely and a collection of sketchbooks filled with silhouettes reminding him of possessions lost – and artwork shared.

“That’s kind of beautiful to look at, too,” Truly says.


**A grant from the EWU Student Emergency Fund provided Truly $300 to replace notebooks and other art supplies lost in the fire.