In my research of the roots of sculpture, I became particularly interested in the figures and vessels carved from wood that were used for ceremonial purposes. After many years, particularly with pieces that came in contact with organic materials such as plant resin and animal fat while held over an open fire, 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 during an area Pow Wow for a written documentary on firekeeping in the Abenaki tradition. (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. Rick Hunt was once again the firekeeper. “Creator must have a good reason to put the sacred fire here, next to the water,” he said. 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.
Since my firekeeping experience, I was looking for ways to further my exploration of Fire Medicine through my art. I had made some previous attempts at smoking a few gourd bowls, and even tried working with animal fat. But using a sacred fire taps into an ancient and powerful tradition that isn’t simply about technique. I asked Rick if it would be appropriate for me to use the sacred fire at this Pow Wow to explore the element of fire through my work. 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.”
This is how I began “smoking pots.”
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. I had to keep focus to insure the gourd remained engaged with the flames without catching fire. 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. Then I realized the deep symbolism of unusual placement of this fire near the water – I am a water sign who is often balancing fire. I needed to be more fluid and intuitive with the process of working with fire.
The end result was a very simple bowl, which I gilded with a brass alloy leaf on the interior to enhance the fire element.
I am still learning, still seeking to understand Fire Medicine as I continue working with fire through my work. Each new “Firepot” brings more insights into this powerful and elusive element.