David Hartz, Cincinnati's pyrotechnic Renaissance man

As one of nature's most destructive forces, fire often gets a bad rap. Yet, viewed from another angle, fire also contains creativity. Recognizing this truth, a global network of intrepid artists has redirected this oft-maligned element towards an unlikely end: creating sculptures. And with a lifetime of pyro-play under his belt, Cincinnatian David Hartz ranks among the nation's best in this dynamic art.

At its heart, "Fire sculpture is a very temporary medium," explains Hartz, an Associate Professor of Electronic Media Communications at the University of Cincinnati's Raymond Walters College

This transient form of sculpture has been popularized most recently by mega events like Burning Man, a counterculture festival in Nevada that closes with the ignition of a towering human effigy every summer. Alongside popular gatherings like Burning Man, fire sculpture making has garnered enough attention to spin off a slew of friendly flame wars around the globe, beginning with the efforts of Gunnar Carl Nillsson and the Swedish Fire Sculpture Association.

Given their founding role in this artistic circuit, perhaps it is unsurprising that northern European countries play a prominent role in this budding art form. Hartz just returned from the World Fire Sculpture Championship 2011, held January 16 to 22 in Tallinn, Estonia.

Enjoying the continental equivalent of hometown advantage, teams from the Baltic came out on top at the first World Fire Sculpture Championship, with Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia finishing first, second and third, and pocketing 2,500 Euros, 1,500 Euros and 1,000 Euros, respectively. Meanwhile, Hartz and his teammates from Seattle, Chuck Nafziger and Jonathon Zucker, battled it out with the three winners as well as fire starters from eight other countries: Finland, France, Mexico, Norway, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland and South Korea.

Prize or no prize, the US team was among the seven teams - including the three winners, Russia, Norway and South Korea - to make it into the final round, an achievement by any standards. "We were quite happy just to be picked for the final competition," Hartz says. Furthermore, despite returning to the US none the richer in monetary terms, Hartz, Nafziger and Zucker gained a wealth of experience.

"Tallinn was very cold the first day of our first build," Hartz recalls. "We pretty much worked under blizzard conditions." 

A long way from Estonia, Hartz grew up in the Midwest and came to fire sculpture through an unlikely route.

"I learned how to make fires in the Boy Scouts with very little materials just in case I got lost out in the woods and needed fire for survival," he recalls. "I found myself as a young man just using sticks and dried vines and other natural materials that I would burn out in the woods." 

Prior to competing seriously, Hartz earned a pyrotechnics license in Canada. Since then, he has gone on to flex his fire sculpting muscles at the Pacific Northwest Fire Sculpture Championship in Seattle, winning first place in 2000. Additionally, Hartz has competed in the Fire Sculpture Championship in Ischgl, Austria in 2001 and 2002, shown fire-based performance art in the US and Canada, and collaborated with fire sculptor Astrid Larsen on fire installations in Vancouver and at Burning Man.

Perhaps Hartz's most extravagant contribution to the fire arts was his help in founding the Cirque De Flambe, which can be loosely translated as "flaming circus." A full blown fire and pyrotechnic sideshow based in Seattle, the Cirque De Flambe features performers who take playing with fire to the next level: juggling fire, jumping rope with flaming ropes, even hula hooping with blazing hoops. Hartz has also coordinated fire effects for local filmmaker, Michael Sanders, and created fire logos for festivals and organizations, including Fox TV's 'fire' logo. 

Seen in the context of arctic performance conditions, counterculture festivals like Burning Man and spectacles like the Cirque De Flambe, fire sculpture would seem to be an art form in a class of its own. Yet, Hartz points out that the medium shares key similarities with some surprising creative cousins. 

"I find a lot of similarities between fire sculpture and animation," Hartz says. "They both involve an element of change over time. Some of the best fire sculptures have some animation element incorporated into them, such as a rope that burns and causes a shape to fall, similar to a Rube Goldberg machine."

Unlike the controlled final product of animation, even after brainstorming, sketching, modeling and doing a test run of a planned performance, there is still an inherent unpredictability to creating a fire sculpture. On top of this, as with any art, assessing the merit of any one piece of work is a completely subjective task.

"There are various camps on what defines a good fire sculpture," Hartz says. "It is all about how you shape the flames and how they change over time. Some consider what it looks like before, during and after the burn. Some people consider only what it looks like during the burn."

Photography by Scott Beseler.
Sculpture before burn in Estonia
David Hartz at his UC office

Fire sculpture competition in Mexico
Fire sculpture in Norway
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