In ancient tribal cultures, “art” was created primarily for ceremonial purposes. A sculpture or vessel might be carved out of wood, and after years of participation in prayers over a smoking fire, and coming in contact with organic materials such as plant resin and animal fat, a deep ebony patina is achieved – not out of a sense of aesthetic, but out of spiritual use.
In 2010, I was honored with the opportunity to work closely with Native firekeeper Rick Hunt on a 36-hour vigil of tending a sacred fire in the Abenaki tradition during an area Pow Wow. (See Keeper of the Fire.) The powerful experience introduced me to what Native Americans call “Fire Medicine” – working with the energy and symbolism of Fire.
At the following year’s Pow Wow, the sacred fire was moved from the center of the dance circle to the edge of the canal that runs along the west side of the park where the Pow Wow takes place. Firekeeper Rick Hunt said, “Creator must have a good reason to put the sacred fire here, next to the water.” As the weekend progressed, I began to see how the steady movement of the water combined with the wild flames of the fire to create an extraordinary amount of energy.
I asked Rick if I might be able to use this sacred fire to begin a series of Firepots that would honor this energy. Without hesitation, he agreed. “This is what the sacred fire is all about,” he said. “It is good you will be honoring Fire Energy in your work.”
So this is how I began “smoking pots.”
I had made some previous attempts at smoking my gourd bowls, and even tried working with animal fat. But using a sacred fire taps into an ancient and powerful tradition that doesn’t exist in our western culture.
As I held one of my gourd bowls over the flame, I released all control and expectation. Fire is a mutable element, it is never the same from moment to moment. All that is pure and natural and organic went into the creative process: the smell of burning wood tinged with the scent of sage, the sounds of drumming and chanting from the Pow Wow, the energy of the dancers.
The end result was a very simple bowl, which I gilded with gold alloy leaf on the inside. I have continued working with Fire in my gourdwork. The “Firepot” series is now part of my portfolio.
I am still learning, still seeking to understand Fire Medicine. Every new “Firepot” brings more insights into this powerful and elusive element.