‘Fire consumes, warms, and illuminates, but can also bring pain and death; thus, its symbolic meaning varies wildly, depending upon the context of its use’.
After the idea came to him in a dream in 2001, Canadian artist Steven Spazuk began the practice of painting with fire. 14 years later, Spazuk’s body of work is nothing short of astonishing not only in size, but in the evidence of sheer mastery he holds over such a delicate and unusual technique. We caught up with Steven for an insight into his work.
Walk us through the process of fire painting?
The process of drawing with fire is called “Fumage”.
I hold a piece of thick paper or a gesso prepared panel in my left hand and a candle in my right, to work in the air, above my head. As soon as the flame touches the surface a trace of soot appears.
The format of the canvas is a challenge. It needs to be light and easy to handle. Most of the time when I start working I don’t know what I am going to get and that is the pure joy of working with fumage… I let the drawings appear without controlling anything. I put the flame to the paper let a shape appear.
How did you happen upon this unusual technique?
Fire came to me in a dream, in April of 2001. After remembering that dream I immediately started to work with fire and for the last 14 years, this technique has been my main focus… my unique voice.
How long have you been practicing for?
As a child I would always be drawing. People were always interested in my work and saw me as an artist. It sort of programmed me from the start to become one.
At 23 I started my professional career as an art director in advertising. I started my own agency when I was 27 and another business (a design firm) at 30. We had a lot of success and won many prizes but I still felt that I was an independent artist who wanted to create freely.
What are some of the difficulties or obstacles that arise during the process?
The main challenge of painting with fire is preservation of the work. The soot is so fragile and sensitive to touch. I am always holding my breath when I am working on a piece because anything that touches the surface will leave a trace.
Sometimes I have to blow on the surface to remove some dust. If I am not careful, and I spit a little, it will create unwanted white spots. A second challenge resides in the conservation of my work. To keep my work protected once it is finished, I have to spray varnish it. The challenge is that the spray has to be extremely fine and applied at the perfect distance, angle and quantity.
Do you have an overarching message or issue that you hope to address through your works?
Fire consumes, warms, and illuminates, but can also bring pain and death; thus, its symbolic meaning varies wildly, depending upon the context of its use.
I mostly use it to talk about life’s fragility. Exploring this fragility is the very essence of my work as a fire artist. The soot depot on paper is extremely delicate; it can easily be altered by any contact.
I feel that I need to talk about my preoccupations. For example : life’s fragility and the place we occupy on our planet. I am preoccupied by all ecosystems, the subjects of my work are often endangered animals, equally conceptual and representational.
Soot is pollution. It is black carbon, and to use that matter to talk about these issues makes sense to me.
Do you have a favorite piece or most significant work?
Reverence-The Monarch Project is my favorite project so far.
My life partner, Danielle Delhaes and I launched the Monarch Project 2 years ago. It’s the first venture of the Reverence Series. Reverence is a unique collection of works of art based on the traces left by living creatures, symbolizing the precariousness of animal and plant life on Earth.
We are exploring a collaborative, community-based, creative process as a means of connecting humans and nature. The experience of beauty, awe, a sense of belonging, a personal connection and an emotional understanding all lead to reverence for nature.
The Monarch project is born of a passion for this extraordinary (Monarch) butterfly and the urgency to act to save this species.
The Monarch Project involves the collaboration of more than a hundred volunteers across the North American continent to create a “self-portrait” of a Monarch butterfly. Using soot on cardboards, the traces left by thousands of Monarch butterflies were respectfully collected, within their natural winter habitat in Mexico.
The resulting printed traces, or entomograms, were cut into pixels of varying shades of grey and assembled with pins to create a 150 X 215 cm “self-portrait” of this majestic and symbolic lepidoptera.
After 2 years of work, we finally exposed the work of art and the film at the famous Montreal Insectarium museum in the summer of 2014. We are now working on a longer version of the film with the director Jean-Nicolas Ohron. We continue to work on creating new networks and opportunities for the Monarch self-portrait and the film to travel around the world so more people can be touched by the plight of this exceptional butterfly and get involved in protecting and creating habitats for its survival.
Read more about Steven’s Monarch project at http://spazukdelhaes.com/fr/reverence.php