Walking through the collection of over 100 portraits by Zachary Aronson, the pioneer of painting by fire, is by turns highly emotional and peaceful. Since COVID began last year, Zach has used his artistic expertise in this unusual medium to immortalize in hardwood the feelings, moods, and personalities of his subjects. The result, as I learn when Zach agrees to let me see his series, is sublime: I encounter portrait after portrait of people I’ve never met but nonetheless feel I know intimately – all because Zach has mastered the use of flamethrowers and blow torches to make complex portraits.
Most I view are between 5-8 feet tall, which intensifies each subject’s expressions. “It’s my preferred size, perhaps for that reason,” Zach says, leading me to one of his favorites, a little girl. “With such a large canvas, so to speak, I have more room to really delve into the finer details and bring out what the model is feeling.”
We move on and pause in front of another portrait of a middle-aged woman. “She looks so serious,” I comment. “It makes me wonder what she was thinking or experiencing that day.”
“I like hearing that,” Zach responds. “As an artist, I try very hard to convey that type of detail in each expression so that the viewer can connect more deeply with the subject.”
As we continue, I ask Zach if there is any story behind the portraits, especially since he began painting them last year. “Yes, they are connected to COVID,” he replies. “The pandemic stressed everyone, including me, and on one level, these portraits have been an outlet for me. However, it goes deeper than that. I decided to tell the story of the emotions caused by the pandemic by immortalizing them in these portraits. The result, you’ll see, is that the portraits progress from feelings of depression or stress to hope and perseverance.”
Zach leads me to a portrait of a middle-aged man and stoops down to show me how the wood was much blacker at the bottom.
“This is from a flame thrower,” he explains, running his fingers just over the area. “I didn’t start using it until COVID hit last year, when my pieces became much darker and moodier. They became less about the person and more about what they were feeling. With the flamethrower, part of the portraits became just black, burned, and ash, like this part here. It represents destruction, and you don’t see the wood as much.”
Zach leads me to another portrait. “Contrast that last one with this. This is a newer portrait from COVID, from when the pandemic began to lift. You can tell because this one is a little more hopeful. It is more triumphant and reflects that humanity can come out of dark times. I see my series as a form of perseverance or perhaps defiance in the face of everything we have collectively gone through.”
It takes a light touch to create art so detailed using fire, and I ask Zach where he got his training. “CalArts grad school,” he replies. “That’s where much of my skill comes from, though I have spent the time since then learning about this medium and becoming one with it.”
I ask Zach why he was so attracted to doing portraits vs. some other subject, like landscapes. “It sounds a bit simplistic, but I really like people,” he replies thoughtfully. “Each person is so different and brings to the session their own personality, worries, and dreams. It’s always an intriguing challenge as an artist to capture all of that and to do it in a way that honors the person. Often, though, the portrait is not necessarily a direct representation of the person. Sometimes it’s more obscure or anonymous. The portrait will tell a story, but it reflects the person’s essence, not necessarily their exact likeness.”
While Zach paints portraits for individuals on a commercial basis, he usually hires models to come sit for him and to be part of his greater vision. “They are crucial to my work and to my goal of showing all of these pieces in a gallery. I’ve already shown in eight galleries and done numerous shows. This is unique, and as word gets out about the medium I am pioneering, I’m finding a big audience for it.”
At the end of our tour, I feel like I have witnessed something truly special: the first pieces of an artist who is the only one using the medium. I tell Zach that he is a visionary who is years ahead of his peers in this respect. “Thank you for the compliment,” he replies. “Remember, though, that it’s ultimately about what fire itself can do. My hands are only using it to bring out its beauty. I have a synergy with fire, one that I will continue to develop so that I can show the world what fire can create.”
For more information on Zachary Aronson and his ability to paint portraits using only fire, please see:
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