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Burning in Humboldt 

Fire art heats up Independence Day

click to enlarge firedancers.jpg

Fire is a primal thing. It creates innate reactions in people. All over the world, and throughout history, mankind has gathered around fire. Playing with fire in not uncommon. Some create art using fire.

The term "fire arts" covers a wide spectrum of performance, art and effects that have one thing in common: flames. Whether it's a dancer spinning balls of fire on chains ("poi"), artistically carved burn barrels, intricately designed bonfire sculptures, or a propane cannon spouting puffs of flame 20 feet high, it is always captivating -- and it's often controversial.

The local fire scene began at least 10 years ago with a few fire dancers working with poi, burning staffs, and eventually swords, fire ‘fingers' and palm torches. Many were influenced by Burning Man, the artists' gathering in the Nevada desert known for fire art and performance, and centered on a ritual bonfire. With the Humboldt arrival of Don Cain and the Department of Spontaneous Combustion (DSC) about eight years ago, local fire toys morphed into something bigger and much more impressive.

Don was making toys for dancers and roped in Scott "Scotty C" Cocking. When they grew tired of making poi, they started building bigger toys: fire cannons carefully engineered to be controllable, safe, and most of all, extremely impressive. Your basic fire cannon is fueled by propane. The flammable gas is gathered in a collection chamber and released rapidly over a small pilot light that ignites the fuel in a large puff of flame, hence the nickname ‘puffers,' as recently seen on kinetic sculptures such as Duane Flatmo's fire-breathing dragon.

One of the first, and only, outlets for fire arts in Humboldt County was Inferknow, an ad hoc group that held private events on private property in Fieldbrook. (Disclaimer: This writer helped manage Inferknow volunteers and operations.) These events featured fire dance troupes like the still active Humboldt Spin Collective, as well as beautifully carved burn barrels, DSC puffers and artistic bonfires. The events stopped several years ago when Inferknow took a break to pursue legitimate permits for the events and, in the process, ran into resistance from the community and insurmountable mountains of red tape.

There's that controversial part. As Mystikque Violet Madrone, a fire dancer for Nightshade Serenade put it, "I am constantly having to tell people I'm a fire artist, not an arsonist."

Those who play with fire invariably talk at length about the extremes they go to making sure their art is safe. Mark Switzer of Mischief Lab says, "We want it to be safe. We don't want to hurt anyone or anything." And as the ones handling fie and operating the pieces, they are well aware that the most likely injuries would be their own.

Off-duty firefighters were on hand at Inferknow events and strict rules were followed: The entire area around any sculpture was thoroughly doused with water before anything was set aflame, and a safety perimeter was established of twice the sculpture's height (a standard set by Burning Man where very, very big things are burned).

"It captivates people," says Switzer, "fire is a medium that crosses all boundaries." But it also scares people. The first groups attempting to get permits to use fire cannons for art events in Arcata and Eureka were turned down. Only simple propane sculptures, which emitted a low, steady flame, were approved in Arcata -- as "lighting/heating" devices -- as of five years ago.

DSC has since left the area, but Mischief Lab picked up the torch and is blazing new trails. Not only have they been permitted to use puffers in Arcata, Trinidad, Garberville and at Fortuna's Safe and Sober graduation event, they've now been commissioned to provide the city of Arcata's 4th of July show in lieu of fireworks.

Mischief Lab formed about a year ago out of the F Street Garage in Arcata, a space that Switzer had intended to turn into an apartment and art studio. When the permitting process stopped that plan, he opened it up to artists to use as is. Thus a montage of welders, dancers, aerialists and fire artists collected and became Mischief Lab.

One Saturday afternoon Switzer was there with Mystikque and her partner Megan "Megz" Clarke of Nightshade Serenade, a new troupe that is pushing the boundaries of fire performance. The lab is a hodgepodge of welding tools, fire toys, acrobatic mats and old furniture. People were constantly in and out as Switzer, a friendly bear of a guy with disheveled hair and an infectious smile, described his fire show experiences.

The first real Mischief Lab show was in Trinidad last year at a skatepark fundraiser. "People freaked out," said Switzer. The authorities showed up and wanted the show stopped, but it was already underway. "We watched the police go from wary to smiling to giggling. The impact on the community shook the foundations of what people thought was acceptable."

More recently the lab was commissioned by the Redwood Run to put on a show in downtown Garberville. That too was met with resistance. After sending a proposal, and being told ‘no,' Switzer got in his car and drove down to speak with the local fire chief about the engineering of the puffers and the safety measures taken in operating them. That effort earned him a permit. By the end of the show, police officers and highway patrolmen were enjoying the show as much as the bikers.

In May Mischief Lab teamed up with Nightshade Serenade and Heather Lewis' Aerial Arts Circus to create a spellbinding show at the Humboldt Arts Festival involving fire dancers, puffers and aerialists performing high above it all in the streets of Arcata. One of the more memorable images was of Mystikque, in a mask and bowler hat, stiltedly walking with two flaming canes. Her family's history in martial arts has sculpted her physical work, and she says she uses fire performance as a "positive outlet for negative experiences," adding, "The greatest gift you can give is inspiration."

The local fire scene has also been boosted by the infamous Duane Flatmo, who began adding fire to his Kinetic Sculpture Race machines a few years ago. After the race, he takes them to Burning Man, where art cars and fire arts are standing traditions.

Out in Blue Lake, Mark "F Street" Whitman and Steve Gellman are building beautiful puffers and are working on a water heating mechanism to deal with the problem of propane tanks freezing. Their goal: to enable a more prolonged blast of fire.

Another group, Pyroglyphics, sprang from the folks building the bonfires at Inferknow events. Their combustible sculptures have gotten more artistic and ambitious with some involving moving parts and different fuels creating spectacular effects. They are now commissioned for private events several times a year.

There are many others working independently or in groups on new forms of fire art -- many hope for any opportunity to gather and share their work. Switzer envisions a three-day gathering (akin to the Fire Arts Festival in Oakland) that would benefit local non-profits, and Nightshade Serenade wants to create an age-diverse spin collective in Eureka. They all have websites and Facebook pages where you'll more information.

For now, everyone is focused on the really big, very public show: The 4th of July fire arts extravaganza at the Crab's baseball park in Arcata with performances by Mischief Lab, Nightshade Serenade and Aerial Dance Circus, among others. The mischief makers plans on unveiling a brave new fire toy for the occasion.

Don't worry. They know what they're doing. 

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Tisha Sloan

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