I first met Robert on the internet while looking for tickets to the sold-out Georgia Regional Burn, Alchemy. He posted this on the ticket list:
“Free Ticket Challenge #2:
– Be the first one to post a photo to the main Alchemy Facebook Group showing you and your friends (or strangers, doesn’t matter) spelling the word Alchemy with only your bodies. Uppercase or lowercase, you decide depending on your flexibility.
-Volunteer for a shift.
-Bring some beer for the pirate ship crew.”
I raced to take photos of myself with my webcam. I posted the pics and won the ticket. All told, Robert gifted seven tickets to lucky, talented burners across the spectrum. I tracked him down at Alchemy, where he had a number of large-scale metal and fire art installations on site.
Besides the functional and beautiful Seuss Machine and the scrap steel guitar player, my favorite installation was Burnt Offering, a metal fountain with a kneeling person soaring over a pool of water below. Propane would bubble up through the water, and every so often the bubbles would catch the pilot and the surface of the water would alight. This project had a hypnotizing quality to it, the totally random nature of the fire really appealed to my sense of chaos and wonder.
Robert is as friendly as you can imagine, and I called him up for an interview about Burning Man, art installations and flamethrowers!
Mitch Giraffe: You were at Burning Man this year. Was it your first time on playa? What regional burns have you been to?
Robert Harrison: This year was my first time on playa. Alchemy 2011 was my first burn, and since then I have been to Euphoria and Transformus, then BM 2012 and Alchemy 2012.
MG: Why did you go to Alchemy that first time? What was your first impression?
RH: A friend and I were apprenticing with a blacksmith, she saw my art and invited me to Alchemy. It was easy to make excuses about why not to go, but she convinced me. I didn’t know anyone except her! When I got there, the greeter asked if I was a virgin, then gave me a big hug, and said welcome home. That was the moment when it all clicked for me. It was an immediate transformation from having a bad attitude to being entirely open to the people and things that were around. That weekend I made tons of friends and keep in touch with many of them. The feeling of being home felt right.
MG: Why is BM important to you?
RH: My first time at Alchemy was very important to me. I had ‘welder’s block’ for nine months before that and my time there cleared the cobwebs out; it gave me the energy and the drive to go create and opened up the world I had closed. You think whatever you’re doing is not possible, but seeing it in action makes all the difference. I made relationships through the year at the regionals and had a community when we got to BM. It was great to see a familiar face in the midst of that chaos.
MG: How long have you been an artist? What is your artistic background?
RH: I was a musician for many years, and I retired from that in 2004. I still had the creative spark after that, so I was subconsciously looking for something else. I started by building some furniture for my house, learned to weld, and progressed from functional art (candleholders and some other small pieces) to creative art, but I resisted calling myself an artist. Finally I built up the confidence to build small-scale fire sculptures, and it took until my apprenticeship with the blacksmith and going to Alchemy 2011 to make it real. Charlie Smith was a huge inspiration to me. (http://www.howhowhow.com/)
MG: What is your favorite of the 10 principles?
RH: My favorite principle is gifting. I took lots of food to share, and love seeing their reaction to interesting stuff. I shipped out two boxes of chocolate-covered strawberries to BM, and by day four people had a crazy reaction to them! Burnt Offering represents a person on their knees offering up a gift. That part of the culture was a big inspiration for me. After that is radical self reliance, in the DIY attitude people have about everything.
MG: I noticed that this was the first year that Alchemy did matching art grants. Did you do any fundraising for the installations you made?
RH: Actually, we did this year! Alchemy got a reputation for just being a big party in the woods, so this year we had an unofficial fundraiser I was an art lead for the event, and though it was a bit late in the season, we raised a good amount of money. There’s still lots of room for improvement. In addition to our fundraising, the Alchemy board matched our money with grants.
MG: A few of your projects, like the Seuss Machine, have a functional part. Is function important to you when creating art?
RH: I have a desire to create functional art… My brain won’t let me create art for art’s sake. I love being able to interact with sculptures, I especially love when people cook on my art! I met a lot of people cooking things on the projects. Not to say all of them have to be that way, but I love to make my art interactive if at all possible. The Seuss Machine has an oven and a grill on it, in addition to lots of pointless dials and gauges. It takes more effort to make art you can use than art you can only look at.
MG: Do you plan and sketch before gathering materials, or work with what’s available?
RH: That’s evolved over time. At first I would stare at my pile of scrap metal and it would evolve based on that. After that first time at Alchemy, I had more of a vision of what I want to build. I now do meticulous sketches of everything. That was one of the big changes after going there, I was able to see the big picture and have an initial vision instead of a compromise based on materials.
MG: Do you have a studio? Are you solo or with others? How much time do you spend on art in a week?
RH: I’ll spend up to 20 hours a week on sculpture if I’m working on projects. I have a small studio of my own, but I am looking for a larger one to make larger-scale projects. I noticed that most of my pieces are 8 feet tall, because that’s how high my studio’s ceiling is! Right now I’m most productive working by myself.
MG: You have an awesome flamethrower. Do you use it in real life, or only at Burns/events? Have you gotten in any trouble with it?
RH: (laughs) We have aroused the curiosity of local law enforcement… They heard reports of explosions and fireballs in the neighborhood, and were very agitated when they first arrived. After seeing what it was, they calmed down and left without incident. I love to use it for cooking hot dogs. However, it is entirely unwelcome on public property. Version 3.0 is on the way, the Double-Barreled Flame Flinger 550. I had a lot of fun using it at Circus Combustus, it was my first time using it in a performance setting.
MG: What was your motivation for the ticket giveaways? Why is gifting important to you?
RH: After Alchemy 2011 I wanted to create the virgin experience for others. I wanted to bring art that blows minds, and watch people be transformed. The ticket giveaway evolved at the last minute, I had a few extras and wanted to give them in a neat way. Soon, other people that had extra tickets offered them to me, and I bought them and gave them away too. Just another way to symbolize the gift economy and allow people to do things creatively!
MG: Thanks Robert, keep up the good work!
RH: My pleasure.