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The Leonardo Gallery

The Thermodynamics of Art

by Andrew Sano

© Therm. Photo © Mike Woolson.

Therm, an East Bay Art Collective founded in 1999 by inventor Dave Andres and artist Vance Cearley, has paralleled the growth of and definition of Fire Arts in the Bay Area . Beginning with individual, human-scaled pieces, the founders, as well as artists Justin Grey, Orion Fredericks and Zack Wetzel created 'Fire Gardens" in the Bay Area and at Burning Man. Fire Art, as a medium, inherently demands interdisciplinary rigor--the Inventor becomes Artist, the Painter wields new brushes of metal and flame, the Fabricator emerges as Performer. Therm creates fire art that does more than just oxidize fuel-- it is art that sings, plays percussion, dances like alien insects or simply radiates occulted beauty when quiescent.

In 2002, Therm, aided by a generous grant from Burning Man, came together and pooled their efforts into a single piece: The Thermokraken. Inspired from the initial drawings of Vance Cearley, the finished piece consumed the pneumatic, electronic, metal fabricating, aesthetic abilities and focused energies of all the members to be realized. 23 feet high, with a footprint of roughly five by five feet, the "Kraken", as Therm affectionately dubbed her, starts with a half ton skeleton of purpose-built metal framing, both scaffold and initial gesture.

Packed tightly within are propane and ethanol fuel lines, chemical powder feed lines, pumps, switches, solenoids and a mass of wires, all somehow coexisting with the main combustion chambers. Equal parts bomb, jet engine and organ-pipe, the primary chamber is a hand-width sixteen foot steel tube, fueled by high pressure propane and forcibly aspirated by 12,000 rpm sports car turbines to howling red-hot crescendos. Further up, in the "blossoms", as the spiky tripartite top-pieces are called, ethanol fountains weep blue flames and additional propane sculptures "bloom" in brilliant colors, enhanced by chemical powder feeds. (Said chemicals being carefully selected by David Andres to be as non-toxic as possible, so one could claim the effects to be "safer than a Presto Log".) Finishing off, the piece is a patchwork cladding of stainless and naturally patinaed raw steel. This exterior, much like our own skin, both protects the more purely functional innards while somehow emphasizing and enhancing the structures concealed within.

The Thermokraken, by scale alone is an imposing, brooding, success, drawing the curious from great distances and transfixing them up close with her ferro-botanical aura. Her construction is analogous to a living thing. Once lit, she is the totem of a new Art form.

Whether controlled solo, in ensemble or playing duets with live musicians such as The Reverend Screaming Fingers or Joe Rut, performances of the Thermokraken limn the holy contour of life itself. The makers pour their lives into the machine, seducing her to breathe and sing, sob, chuckle or bellow in joyous rage. To see a 7-meter red-hot steel sculpture cry blue methanol tears while emitting a deep systolic throb from its main ignition chamber struggling to respire, each tortured breath heaving out coronas of carmine and emerald flame, one feels the pathos of all things fighting to get what they need: enough air, enough fuel, or just the proper conditions in which to thrive. One realizes this isn't just an overgrown roofing torch, it's Art baby, and, no irony intended--very cool.

Therm has had Fire Shows in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Coachella and Las Vegas, as well as being featured on KQED's Spark, well belying the conception that Fire art is 'just a playa thing.'

Fire Art is here to stay. But mere ignition doth not an art piece make. Incomplete combustion is inelegant. Are you using all your oxygen?

Andrew Sano

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Updated 16 April 2007.

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