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 ceremonies 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 during a 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 refer to as “Fire Medicine” – working with the energy and symbolism of Fire.
Returning to the Pow Wow the following year, I noticed 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 was taking place. Rick Hunt was once again the firekeeper. He 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 it would be acceptable for me to use this sacred fire to explore the fire element through my gourdwork and 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.”
This is how I began “smoking pots.”
I had made some previous attempts at using fire in my work, but using a sacred fire taps into an ancient and powerful tradition that is far more that simply achieving a desired visual effect.
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 and I had to remain focused, using my intuition to sense how close to the flame I could go without the bowl bursting into flames.
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. This first attempt resulted in a very simple bowl, which was the beginning of a series of Firepots that would further my exploration into the element of Fire.