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  • Fire Vortex
  • Nate Smith

The making of fire art often relies on the ability to transcend instinctual fear. So profound is our relationship to fire that the mere presence of flame is usually enough to incite a deep human reaction that draws the viewer unwittingly to both fear and fascination. The art of working with fire is the ability to transport the viewer beyond instinctual recognition and toward a deep awareness of the immense beauty that fire naturally possesses.

One way of providing access to this beauty is by helping people experience the fluid nature of fire. Symmetry in form and motion, fluid flow, light and color all play a part in experiencing the allure of fire. Much of my work has centered on manipulating the flow of fire into different forms and shapes, creating temporary sculptures made entirely of flame. By using techniques such as altering the moment when fuel and oxygen react or controlling the flow and location of gas jets and pressurized openings, I have been able to obtain various vortex shapes that have been dubbed Lion Tails, Dragon Tails, Jet Cones, Corkscrews and Fire Spirits. I create some of the shapes with machines I have made and some by hand, but all the shapes I have created help to capture the elusive beauty of fire flowing from one form to another. It is something we are rarely privileged to witness elsewhere, especially from a place of wonder instead of fear. The other side of fear is fascination. We all have an instinctual fear of fire. When we give up that fear, we then have access to its beauty.

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Fig. 1.

Nate Smith, Fire Vortex, burning propane, moving air and human in proximity suit, 2002. Manual creation of a fire vortex at Burning Man 2002 using a hand-held, flame-emitting device.

© Nate Smith. Photo © Adam Haberlach

I have done a great deal of fire art at Burning Man, including the Fire Vortexes in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006 and the massive burning fuel ejections of 2BLEVE (also in 2006). Burning Man is a wonderful place for large-scale fire art. One of my favorite things that I've created there are the Fire Vortexes (Fig. 1): tornados of flame, spinning columns of rising fire that reach up to 60 ft in height.

To produce a Fire Vortex, I begin by manipulating air into a vortex shape by directing it with powerful fans or rotating vanes. When a vortex is established, I introduce propane into the base using a device that I humorously call my "magic fire wand," designed specifically for this purpose. The opening through which the gas flows from the fire wand is one of the most important parts of the system. The shape of the opening and the speed of the gas flowing out make a tremendous difference in the final shape of the fire. A control allowing delicate adjustment of the speed of the fuel is located on the handle of the wand. This is where a good deal of the subtlety of flame shaping happens. If the gas comes out too fast or in the wrong place, it can obliterate the vortex form instead of shaping it. However, if the gas is artfully adjusted, it can create undulating fire sculptures of great beauty. Once the fuel has been fed into the vortex using the fire wand, it is ignited by a pilot flame and instantly drawn upward into a fiery manifestation of fluid dynamics at work.

When people see good fire art, what happens most of the time is that they smile. When they smile, it kicks in another built-in human response: It makes me smile to make you smile. It is as simple as that. [End Page 349]

Nate Smith
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