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The Art and Science of Sculpting in Fire

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The Art and Science of Sculpting in Fire

Art & Design

The Art and Science of Sculpting in Fire

The Art and Science of Sculpting in Fire

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Reporter Jeff Rice profiles fire sculptor Nate Smith, and examines the art and science behind his craft.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Farai Chideya.

A journey now into the world of fire art. There are legions of modern fire dancers, poi spinners and fire eaters. There are fire art troupes, like the Cirque de Flambe and the Gargoyles of Fire. The annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert has touched off pyromania mania. But chances are you've never seen anything quite like the work of Nate Smith. Reporter Jeff Rice has this story about one artist's industrial strength approach to fire.

JEFF RICE reporting:

It's like the most beautiful blast furnace you've ever seen.

(Soundbite of propane flame-thrower; cheers)

RICE: Nate Smith is moving back and forth like a spaceman in a silver fire suit, wielding a long propane flame-thrower. He's controlling 50-foot-tall vortexes of flames that shoot into towering funnel shapes. It's kind of like if "The Wizard of Oz" was written by Dante and the tornado took Dorothy straight to hell.

Mr. NATE SMITH (Fire Sculptor): Loud and is hot, and when you're in the very center of the circle--or not the very center, but the--right off, and you're feeding the flame, it is--it's like being in there with a creature of some sort.

RICE: You're most likely to see a Nate Smith show at night out in the desert or in some industrial part of town. And out of the darkness, the flames vaporize and coalesce, and there's an elegance to it that walks the fine line between industrial accident and art.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Mr. SMITH: It's just--it's a beautiful thing. It's fun to be in there with that much intensity.

RICE: When he's not in his silver fire suit, you can see that Nate Smith has intense eyes. His scalp is bald, and his beard gives him a sort of devilish appearance.

Mr. SMITH: Yeah. Occasionally, I get that comment, and it's not the intent. I'm a nice guy.

RICE: On a hillside in the small rural town of Richmond, Utah, Smith shows how he uses a series of fans to capture the fire and sculpt it into different shapes.

(Soundbite of fans; flames)

Mr. SMITH: Like you can see the spiral where it's burning the spiral into the...

RICE: It looks a lot like a flaming dust devil. In fact, that was Smith's original inspiration.

Mr. SMITH: I was watching a field right down there burn one day. They burn the stubble off the fields after--like barley or wheat fields. And then I saw this dust devil come--develop that was from the heat of the fire. It came out of the field and it was full of black soot from the fire. So I knew that the fire formed the dust devil, and then I thought, you know, maybe if it contains soot, maybe it could contain fuel and make a vortex of fire.

RICE: Gallons and gallons of liquid propane later and after a fair amount of advice from engineers and fire marshals, Smith has been showing his fire vortexes throughout the West.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Unidentified Woman: It turns me on in a very different kind of way, you know. It's more of that sensual energy. It's pervasive, sort of tantric fire energy...

RICE: Smith is the subject of a new documentary film, "What Lights Nate."(ph) It follows him to places like the Burning Man festival in Nevada and the Open Fire Arts Festival.

Unidentified Man: He's out there on the edge. He's doing experimental vaporizers and things...

RICE: One of the film's co-producers is Patrick McMurtry.

Mr. PATRICK McMURTRY (Film Co-producer): You feel the heat, and when the wind changes or the wind fluctuates, you know, this big fire flame may come towards you. When you look at Nate in his fire suit, which he has to be well-protected to do that, and you see the flame come over, you know, and almost engulf him, he's perfectly safe, but you feel a sense of--there's both a sense of awe and a sense of fear, and that, combined with the beauty of it, makes for a great experience.

(Soundbite of cheers; drums)

RICE: Outside, Nate Smith has just created a tornado of fire as tall as a house. And if you're here, maybe you've come to an understanding. Don't kid yourself. We're all pyros. Nate Smith's art proves this, and you can't take your eyes off it.

Mr. SMITH: It just happens, you know, the beautiful part. You react to it automatically, and people automatically smile.

RICE: For NPR, I'm Jeff Rice.

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