Rebecca "Beck" Salsbury, who married photographer Paul Strand in 1922, was immersed in the Stieglitz circle, forming inspirational friendships with artists such as Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Arthur Dove, and especially Georgia O'Keeffe. In fact, the two female artists made a momentous trip to Taos together in the summer of 1929, which eventually inspired each to make a permanent move to New Mexico. Beck moved West in 1933, after her divorce from Strand, and settled there with her second husband, rancher Bill James. In a letter towards the end of her life, James fondly recalled her longstanding relationship with O'Keeffe, "Georgia O'Keeffe is coming to see me today--there is a big article about her in the current issue of Life--she sits on the front of it--I have known her 46 years--and at 81 she takes the long trip from Abiquiu to see me--she is a true friend--and her visits mean much to me--for she is not a 'visiting' person." (unpublished letter, March 4, 1968)
A largely self-taught artist, James claimed that she "'happened to start painting on glass'...Having decided 'to try a painting,' she used a pane of window glass as a palette (a practice she had learned from O'Keeffe). While cleaning her palette one day, she 'happened to turn it over before the paint had been wiped off and noticed how beautiful it looked through the glass. I thought 'something beautiful and different can be done with painting on glass and some day I'll try it.'" (as quoted in S. Campbell, In the Shadow of the Sun: The Life and Art of Rebecca Salsbury James, Ph.D. dissertation, University of New Mexico, 2002, p. 192) With advice from Hartley, who had tried reverse glass still-life paintings in 1917, and reflections on Wassily Kandinsky's use of this technique to recall Russian folk paintings around 1911, she became devoted to this challenging medium, which required the utmost mental concentration and allowed for no edits. Suzan Campbell posits, "Reverse oil painting on glass appealed to her precisely because of its cluster of esoteric associations and exquisite difficulty (not even the 'phenomenal' Hartley has mastered it). It would be her challenge alone, there would be no 'competition' with better-known artists. The medium particularly suited the somber, often eerie moods she wished to convey." (In the Shadow of the Sun, p. 194)
In the present work, James evokes a sense of eeriness with the dark, cloudy night sky and cool, desolate mountain landscape setting the stage for a dramatic bird's flight. The work seems to convey, as Denver Art Museum curator Donald Bear described, "a strange, intense symbolism which endows familiar, often forgotten things with a sensuous quality...They are almost as luminous as though painted in clear dispassionate rays of light." (as quoted in In the Shadow of the Sun, p. 272) Despite the somber palette, James apparently intended an optimistic message for Fire and Air; she described the work in an unpublished October 1967 letter gifting the work to her beloved nephew Nate Salsbury as "a painting--a black bird soaring--a symbol of what I hope you will always do."