"Rocks smash scissors, scissors cut paper, paper
wraps rock, but fire burns everything: paper, rocks and scissors."
P. Thomas (2001)
In 1988 The International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists
(IAMPA) had a joint meeting with The Friends of the Dard Hunter Paper
Museum (FDH) in Reno Nevada. I knew that some foreign members would want
to see the Pacific Ocean, so offered to host a post conference meeting
at my home in Santa Cruz. As part of the post conference we gathered on
the beach, where I had assembled paper, sticks, string and tape for participants
to use to create paper structures that we would burn, on a bonfire, that
night. The sculptures were creative and beautiful, and burning them was
one of the most powerful and magical events I have ever been a part of.
In 2001, I again lead another workshop to make paper structures and burn
them, at the FDH meeting in Dalton, Massachusetts. As I pondered what
we would do, I realized I wanted to give the event more content than just
making something to burn. I knew there was a festival near Reno, Nevada,
called "Burning Man" where artists who worked with the medium
of fire gathered to display their art, so I signed up to go. Since information
about this festival can be found at their web site, so I will not spend
too much time trying to describe the event. It is held in a remote desert
location, The camps are laid out like a clock from 10 pm to 3 am, perhaps
a half mile in diameter, in seven concentric semi-circles of about 25,000
people in crazy creative individualistic theme decorated shelters. These
semicircles opened to the desert and in the middle of everything were
the art works and a 40 foot man, made of wood, neon lights and pyrotechnics
that would be burned the last night of the festival.
Burning man is a village for a week. Huge and dense. Too much to see and
experience in a week. All kinds of people come to burning man. Lots of
under thirties, to dance, rave and drug; lots of old hippies to party
and be naked in the sun and dust; lots of hard working people who want
to cross dress, paint themselves blue and drive around in funny decorated
art cars. There were artists who came and made art works to burn. There
were pyros who just burned things for the pleasure of burning. Seeing
someone or something interesting, you could stop and talk, and if you
connected you would be friends for a moment, and then not see them again
for the rest of the week, or you could stay and camp with them. Everyone
brought too much of everything and shared it: water, alcohol, fire, food...
It was supposed to be a money less society where you bartered for exchange,
but I found it to be a place where everyone had too much stuff and so
just gave the stuff away.
It was a place to survive. The elements were harsh. Dust blew everywhere.
The sun made days too hot to sleep, too hot for anything. The nights were
the time to wander and see the art. I interviewed all the artists I could
locate. In that large a crowd, with no real organization finding things
was problematic. Each artist I met had their own story about how they
came to fire as the medium for their work. Here are some things I learned:
The most basic relationship that an artist can have with fire is raw power:
creation and destruction. At the archetypal level, fire is both male and
female. The female fire is a candle, the male fire a torch. Feminine fire
art is about control, nurturing, male fire art is about release. The medium
has a life of its own. Each fire has an individual personality. The fierceness
of a bonfire and the gentle beauty of glowing embers evoke primal aesthetic
responses. Everyone is intrigued by fire. But usually not art galleries
or art expositions. Papermakers sometimes complain that people do not
accepted paper as art. Think of fire. What city council would commission
a burning sculpture for the center of their town, or show burning artwork
in the local art museum.
Aesthetic content in an art work is created by layering aesthetic elements:
a story, a color, a texture, a feeling. One of the most basic themes for
fire art work is release, giving up something to god, giving something
back to the universe. Another basic theme is creation and destruction,
another is beginning and endings, another rebirth, as in the legend of
the phoenix. Other themes used by fire artists are illumination and revelation:
when the skin is burned away the structure shows; when the mystery is
solved all things are easily understood. Fire art can also be about facing
ones fears. Fire artists always must deal with the possibility of being
burned, and have the need for courage as they attempt to control a wild,
primal medium in their art work.
Many of the installations and art works really had no reason to burn,
fire was not integral to the concept. But then lots of the people were
not trying to create art works; they were really just "pyros"
making things to burn. Some works were big, displaying the raw power of
a big burn; the fire element with its roaring blast of heat and light.
Others were smaller scale, where the viewer could be intimate with the
flame. Being a paper artist, I had expected to find most fire artists
working with wood and paper, but it turned out that many worked with metal
and propane, with a fire that burned continuously. I met a group of artists
at a camp called Carp Camp who were making metal sculptures with propane
fire jets, so that they functioned like water fountains of flame. They
mixed oxygen and other gasses into their flame with blowers to vary the
intensity and color of the flame. The artists felt that these metal pieces
have to succeed both when they are static, in the daylight, as well as
when they burn.
One stunning piece was a large metal sculpture in the shape of a human
heart. It was the size of a VW bus, made by welding together various sizes
and thickness and types of metal, and had a raging wood fire inside which
caused the different metals to spark and glow in different colors of red
and orange, calling to my mind the metaphor of the flame in my heart.
Another artist, David Best, created a two and a half story, forty by sixty
foot building out of sheet of plywood with tiny puzzle piece laser cut
outs. This wood was light and airy lent incredible ambiance to the building,
fashioned after an ornate oriental temple, which he called the mausoleum.
Inside there was an alter and on the alter blocks of wood. visitors were
instructed to write the name of loved ones who had taken their own lives
on the blocks of wood and the names of loved ones who had made easy passages
into death on the walls. This way when he burned the structure the ones
who had died easy could help the others leave the earth. This was a very
powerful piece both before and when it burned.
Conversation with these artist revealed that they often like working with
the interplay between what is man made (and what can be controlled) and
what is of nature and does what ever it will. One artist, Gerhard Schatz,
noted that burning art acknowledges the transient nature of all art. In
this medium the artist becomes responsible for the total cycle of their
work: creation through destruction, there is no gallery or owner to make
concessions to, only the limits of the medium. Schatz stated that one
of his goals was to get the viewer involved physically, with the heat,
with the flame, by making sculptures to walk through.
Paper and fire have a history together. In Asia paper was burned at funerals
and was used in ceremony to connect the physical and spiritual worlds.
Here in the west we have to create our own traditions. I went home filled
with ideas and used them to create several workshops. In Dalton we made
human size paper sculptures, but when they burned the fire was terrifying
to the managers of the conference center, so in later workshops we made
more intimate sculptures, with bamboo skewers for the structure, that
could be burned in a fire place. I also began to explore making books
to burn, and find that this is always a provocative act. I look forward
to what will result from these experiments.
Peter Thomas, Santa Cruz: 2001 & 2006