Everytime I walk into a museum, a theater, or a hotel, my mind immediately races. I stand off to the side and envision the possibilities for transforming this space into something people have never seen before. I think, perhaps, that creating an installation for a space that has thousands of square feet has to be a lot like composing a symphony: every part of the room serves a purpose and works with other sections to create an overall effect that dazzles visitors and gives them an unforgettable experience. Although I love to make fire portraits that are eight feet tall, I am more than ready to take my art to the largest venues and use it to create other worlds. I cannot imagine anything more fulfilling or exciting than this.
My mind is basically both highly imaginative and very structured, which is a weird combination at times. It has to be that way, though, because choreographing the creation of art for such a big space relies on that structure even if the final result is whimsical or mysterious. It takes finesse, I suppose, to build a solid foundation for a set but to let it appear graceful and unplanned. There must be a design, thought, and vision behind it so that all of the pieces flow, but at the same time, I must make it look effortless. Because of these two contrasting parts of my mind, I am able to do this.
It makes sense, then, that I am so attracted to doing large-scale projects: they are what I most dream of doing, especially since my CalArts days, when I created a huge installation on the university’s front lawn. With that experience under my belt, I want to bring my artistic vision to bigger and more unusual locations, including the exteriors and interiors of entire buildings. I want to take it a step further and collaborate with architects to create immersive environments out of my artwork, including in business and hotel lobbies. With my artistic ability to create these worlds that are unlike anything anyone has seen, I would love to be given more and more opportunities through space, funding, and resources to create these worlds. I have so many portraits at my studio, ready to go, that I can create a set much faster than other artists who would have to start at the very beginning.
I also see myself collaborating with other artists of other mediums. I know I would love to work on a Broadway show, ballet, or opera and create these sets out of my artwork. They are sculptures that double as performance spaces due to the sheer magnitude of scale. When you add my artwork to the passion and stories that come with plays or musicals, then you will have a real experience for the audience, one that won’t be found anywhere else.
I really want to be working with larger ideas, which is what it comes down to in the end. My mind and imagination go much bigger than the wood panels I currently work with. Yes, I still love the process of creating portraits, but I want to use them to create larger installations. A portrait I created this afternoon will accompany another 100, all of which will create a space of 1000s of square feet. Having the opportunity to create those spaces is what excites me and is, I believe, what I will be most remembered for.
My day will come. Until it does, I will continue to refine my skills and look forward to the day when I walk into that Broadway theater or Chicago hotel, ready to transform it into the masterpiece I have had in my mind for years. I have faith that this day is speeding my way, and I will be ready for it when it arrives.
I think that if you had told me when I was five years old that I would one day work with flamethrowers and blow torches to create my portraits, I would have thought you were crazy. I’m not sure what my family would have thought. The closest I had gotten to fire at that age was when I sat in front of the fireplace during the wintertime and drew pictures of Santa Claus. It never occurred to me that one day I would be using fire instead of pencils to immortalize people in hardwoods, but I have never regretted changing mediums.
At this point in my career, after a decade as a fire artist, I am still scratching the surface of what’s possible with fire as my medium. It’s still new and exciting to me with every portrait I create. Just when I think I understand how to work with fire to create effects, it teaches me a new technique, and I marvel at how something so destructive can be used to create beauty. Sometimes I experiment and try an idea, as I did when I set fire to the wood the other day and made it crackle. Sometimes the flame shows me a different way to create texture in the wood, and I realize that I have gone a step deeper into the mysteries of fire and art.
While that continues to happen, I want to continue pushing this medium as far as it can go. I am not sure when I will hit that wall, the point at which I will have learned everything that fire can do. It raises the question, though, if such a thing even exists. What will really be the limiting factor: fire or my imagination? Fire has been around for several million years and is an age-old force on this planet. I, on the other hand, will only be here a century at most, so perhaps I will never live long enough to truly understand how fire can create art. Maybe, in the end, I will simply give the reins to the next generation of artists so that they, too, can explore fire painting and take it even further than I have done.
Regardless, if I ever get bored with painting portraits with fire, if I ever feel that I am not improving or innovating, that’s when I will likely move on. I don’t, though, see myself fully stopping working with fire. I think that it will always be an important part of my body of work and that I will go back to it at times. It’s become too much of who I am and of my life’s story for me to ever truly leave it behind me.
Innovation is so important to me and will always be a core part of my work. I want to continue to push outside the box until I create new forms of art. What if I set fire to dead trees? What could that create? Will there be a day when I can make entire landscapes? With enough space and resources, the possibilities are endless.
Will I ever reach the day when I move beyond painting with fire? Probably, be it in one year or twenty years. I will cross my bridge when I get to it. I will push past exclusively working with fire someday, but first, I really want to develop this medium as far as I can, as much as I can, so long as I am still excited by it.
That means, then, that fire and I still have plenty of time together. I cannot wait to see what it teaches me next and what that will mean for my art.
Whether or not to follow a suggestion is a tricky thing, especially for an artist. Without a doubt, there are people who have more experience than you do, and they can give you a lot of pointers that can save you time and steer you in a better direction. At the same time, though, art is a highly subjective process, and if you listen to too many suggestions, you risk losing track of what makes art so fascinating: creating it is a wonderful way to discover what makes you unique.
If you are an artist or want to delve into it, one of the most important pieces of advice I have is that you balance trusting your intuition with trying new things, experimenting, and going outside of your comfort zone. Take, for example, what I encountered when I was first starting out. When I was younger, I went to art classes much like anyone does. I knew, unsurprisingly now, that I wanted to draw portraits. My teachers encouraged me to try painting, collages, and pretty much everything else except drawing pictures of people’s faces. None of it interested me, and it wasn’t long before I felt frustrated in those classes. When I was finally able to draw portraits, I was energized and threw myself into each one.
Was the advice of any of my teachers “bad”? Were they flat-out wrong? Not necessarily. A lot of good can come from experimenting with different mediums, especially for children. I do believe that it’s beneficial for young artists to familiarize themselves with painting, sketching, sculpting, and other mediums so that they can build different skills. I think, even so, that it’s very important that you stay true to why you want to be an artist in the first place. If you are drawn to something like I was, stick with it even if you get well-meaning advice that will lead you in a different direction.
Remember: don’t follow all suggestions from those who are more experienced. It may work for them, but it might not be the right fit for you. This is where confidence and maturity come in, I think. Young artists are often told that they need to look to the masters and learn from them. They can do that, of course. Trouble, however, can come when they place themselves in too much subservience to the experts of their time instead of knowing themselves, politely rejecting the advice of these masters when appropriate, and staying true to their visions.
Sometimes you really do just have to go with your gut. I am where I am today, truthfully, because I ignored the advice of many well-established artists who wanted me to be more like them. I could get into the psychology of that and talk about why they wanted me to emulate them, perhaps because of their egos, but my point is this: because I ignored their suggestions, I ended up doing something entirely unique in this world. That’s not easy to do when there are millions of talented artists around the globe who work so hard to make their creative visions tangible. “Be yourself” has rarely been truer than in the art world. Having the ability to balance pushing limits with staying true to what you’re passionate about is super-important.
In the end, which advice you take and which you reject will always come down to what your artistic instinct is telling you. Stay open to learning new techniques and remain humble, as no one likes an arrogant artist no matter how great their work may be. What goes on your canvas or into your sculpture, of course, will always be determined by you, the artist.