Local Arts

NC's Firefest: Ready, sculpt, FIRE

Glaze materials are thrown onto the 2014 FireFest sculpture, “Fireman” by Cristina Cordova, of Penland.
Glaze materials are thrown onto the 2014 FireFest sculpture, “Fireman” by Cristina Cordova, of Penland. Rhonda McCanless

If all goes according to plan on April 2, a massive, specially designed kiln in this little town 90 minutes east of Charlotte will open like a flower, revealing a 7-foot-tall ceramic sculpture still wreathed in flames.

It’s become a yearly drama in Star.

April 1 and 2 will bring the fourth annual FireFest at the STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise. The festival highlights what happens year-round at the center: Artists come to do innovative projects they wouldn’t have the time or money to do in their day-to-day work lives, in short and longer-term residencies.

There’s a hot shop for glass artists, kilns for ceramic artists and the tools and space needed for iron working. The center is one way Star has sought to bolster its economy since a hosiery mill’s departure in 2001 left it searching for new direction.

[Watch a glass peach being created by STARworks’ director of glass blowing and read more about the place here.]

The center has been preparing for FireFest for weeks – with an anxious moment or two.

The star attraction

On sunny St. Patrick’s Day, Sergei Isupov – a ceramics artist from Estonia, whose work is in the Mint Museum’s collection – stands beneath a makeshift tent preparing FireFest’s star attraction: the figure that, if all goes well, will be dramatically unveiled April 2.

The open-sided canopy keeps Isupov from frying in the sun, but it does more: It also slows the drying of the wet clay he’s using, a special version mixed and tested by STARworks Clay Factory, one of the center’s in-house business ventures. Sand’s been added to this clay, for structural strength.

The ceramist must race both the clock and the weather – not just sun, but breezes and humidity affect the clay.

Early in the shaping of the base, to fortify the wet clay walls, Isupov cinched nylon belts around its girth. Why? As the structure grows, the increasing weight on the foundation’s walls and its drying exterior combine with the plasticity of the still-damp interior – which could cause a collapse.

It didn’t.

Now Isupov shifts back and forth and slips around his semi-built work, dabbing pliable bits of clay here and there to add to the surface’s dimension and detail. He uses metal ribbon tools to scrape and articulate the shape, then wooden gouges and other tools to more precisely tease out eyes, a mouth. He repeatedly backs away from the form as it evolves, to judge its shape. Then he’s back at it, clarifying the contours or refining the physical characteristics.

He describes his vision for the work in dualities: “man and woman, earth and sky, winter and spring.” To get there, he works with shape and scale, predetermined by the kiln’s dimensions.

Watching Isupov work provides a teaching moment. He doesn’t get frustrated; he adapts.

At one point, he steps back several paces, and looks to his drawing, then back to the clay. He notices discrepancies – the placement of an ear, for example. “It’s slightly askew. It doesn’t correspond to the drawing.”

Yet: “That’s the beauty of the creative process.”

The artist’s conception of an ascending ponytail smartly provides the sculpture’s terminating point. And the ponytail conforms to the bottleneck shape of the kiln’s top.

Isupov plans some glazed surfaces, as on his smaller porcelain forms, though “it won’t be as elaborate.” He decides he will paint a simple white matte glaze onto the female’s head. “I think I’ll also pierce the surface of this form, so when you look at her, you might think of clouds or snow, things light and airy.”

His plan for the finished sculpture is two heads, one on top looking at and kissing the lips of the one beneath. Think of Picasso’s flattened likenesses and the way his work suggested different perspectives. That’s Isupov’s goal.

When attendees arrive at the festival, the firing of Isupov’s piece will already be underway. The kiln’s tenders will begin stoking the wood fire this Tuesday, aiming to hit 2,200 degrees.

“I’m anxious to see the unveil,” said Isupov. “With this type of work, it’s more a performance.”

STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise visiting artist is building a sculpture that a kiln will be built around to fire during the center's annual Firefest.

More on tap

▪ Glass artist-in-residence Nancy Callan, scheduled to arrive at the campus March 27, will also create work for FireFest. From Seattle, she is known for her use of glass cane (long glass rods) and murrine (complex patterns or images made within cane) in elegantly blown and expertly crafted large-scale glass forms: clouds, tops, orbs.

Like Isupov, Callan is using her week at the STARworks hot shop to experiment with new ideas. She’ll focus on patterns but says she’s recently become intrigued with improvising on shapes she’s seen in children’s books, from Dr. Seuss to “Where the Wild Things Are.”

“I’m excited by the opportunity at STARworks to create glass shapes that interest me,” she stated. “I’m also looking forward to working differently with materials familiar to me.”

▪ Durham-based Liberty Arts Sculpture Studio & Foundry is another headliner, bringing a portable foundry and demonstrating studio practices with molten iron. Want to learn about scratch molds (sand molds in which you scratch designs), and observe a 2,700-degree hot-iron pour? Liberty Arts’ Jackie McLeod, a cardiothoracic surgeon turned iron sculptor, says attendees will get to personalize a scratch mold and, since “safety’s a must” at these temperatures, “we’ll pour hot iron into the form.” Creative street markers and home address plaques are some possible products.

▪ If ceramics is your gig, there’s a kiln opening, an open-studio experience where festivalgoers can try their hand at ceramics, and South African-born ceramist Priscilla Mouritzen will do a demo.

▪ There’s also a FireFest art sale; a hot glass magic show performed by Wet Dog Glass’ Eddie Bernard and his assistant, “Miss Direction”; live music by Eck and the New Manics; and locally brewed beer and food vendors. The FireFest evening finale, with artist slideshows, demonstrations, live entertainment and artists at work, is included in the price of admission.

Mark Leach, who has served as executive director of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem and was founding director of the Mint Museum of Craft + Design, writes about the visual arts, and is an independent curator and consultant.

This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.


When: 1-10 p.m. April 1, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. April 2.

Where: STARworks, 100 Russell Drive, Star, N.C.

Tickets: Admission each day is $5, which lets you see the fire finale events, slideshows and demonstrations and entertainment, and watch artists at work. STARworks Open Studios is 5-7:30 p.m. April 1 and costs $10; that lets you try working with hot glass, metal and ceramics (there are age restrictions; check the website). Workshops are offered April 2 and range from $15 to $60.

Details: 910-428-9001; bit.ly/1Ptx5KM.

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