I recently attended a fire sculpture festival staged by Artcite, Inc., the Canadian "artist-run centre for the contemporary arts" to which I belong. This--and the fact that I am a bit of a pyromaniac--inspired me to begin tinkering around with making my own fire sculptures. I figured I could start by building some small scale models--more feasible place to start than trying to build the ten-foot-plus lumber and hay sculptures I had seen at the Artcite festival.
So I began by taking a scrap block of wood, drilling a half-inch hole in it, finding a short stick that would fit snugly in the hole, and then drilling smaller horizontal holes in this pole for "side branches." Gathered up a lot of small kindling-sized sticks and picked through them to find sticks that would fit in the pole holes. After turning the hole into a "tree" with branches, I began to add other sticks, either by "weaving" them up and through several different branches (using the natural tension to hold this sticks in place) or by tying small sticks using some hemp string that Janice offered me. Besides the natural kindling sticks that fall from the trees in my yard (and that I gather to help me start fireplace fires), I also included some fat wood--a very resinous and flammable wood that I have used to help me light fires in the chiminea on our deck. My fat wood sticks were too big, so I splintered the sticks into smaller pieces (using pliers and scissors) comparable to the kindling sticks I was using. In addition to tying individual sticks on to the pole and its branches, I also tied a half-dozen of more short sticks together to make a stick ball or "star" that I then tied on to a branch or wedged into a branch and kindling networks. I reasoned that these stick balls would burn the longest on the fire pole and started thinking of them as "fire centers." I didn't trust that a stick-only sculpture would easily ignite and quickly spread, so I decided to cut and use small strips of newspaper as the material that would quickly inflame, spread, and set the pieces of kindling and stick balls on fire. I knew that a lot of paper would give the fire pole a dramatic start--just as it does in my fireplace fires. Newspaper was my substitution for the hay that was used as the main propellant for the fire sculptures I had seen at the Artcite festival.
Some of the things I learned:
- In order to maintain the basic fire pole structure for the length of the burn, I started using much greener sticks for the pole and the branches. This worked.
- I noticed at the Artcite event that as the night went on and the humidity became dense, it became more difficult to light the sculptures and keep the hay burning. Newsprint will absorb humidity and lose its flammability even more quickly. So after wrapping the fire pole in newsprint and photographing it outside, I put it in the warmest, driest room in our house to keep the paper strips dry and to give the kindling a chance to dry out even more before burning.
- I first used the paper strips to create a paper ball at the base of the pole to help the fire get going and established. I then added additional paper balls to help move the fire up the pole and the branches. I also wrapped the stick balls in paper strips to help these get burning. As I worked with the paper strips I realized that I could tie the ends of the strips together in a loose knot or tuck the loose ends through a paper loop. Almost all the paper was secured to the fire pole and itself in this way.
- With the third fire pole I decided to create an upward spiral with the branches and see if I couldn't get the fire to create more of a circular path instead of burning just straight up the pole. This was more of a challenge, because the "burning path" was now not a simple vertical burn. I used extra paper and started bridging some paper chains across the branches but there were still gaps that the fire didn't jump. We had to light the third fire sculpture three different times to complete its burn. For fire pole number four I decided to make sure the fire traveled all the way up and around the spiral by creating a continuous "burning path" with the paper strips.
- I started with a focus on twigs and ended with a focus on paper.