Dignity. Despair. Hope. Resilience. Zachary Aronson, the world’s only artist who paints portraits using just fire, has managed to do what many artists had thought was impossible: capture complex human emotions using a flamethrower or blow torch.
Fire has traditionally meant destruction, as evidenced by the damage done to Notre Dame in Paris. In Zach’s studio, however, I discovered that fire could be a force of creativity, and I spent an enjoyable morning taking in his series of more than 100 pieces and absorbing the explanation of each one by Zach, who guided me from portrait to portrait.
“Most of my pieces are between 5-8 feet tall,” Zach said, stopping in front of a portrait of a smiling woman with mysterious eyes. “I like working with panels of this size, but I can create pieces that are bigger.”
I paused in front of an older man, whose face was wrinkled. “I love his expression,” I said, studying them. “You’ve managed to convey a lot of wisdom as well as the passing of time in his face.”
“As an artist, I’ve really evolved over the last few years in particular,” Zach responded, looking at the portrait. “I can do techniques today that I couldn’t do in the beginning, and the result is the detail you see there.”
Zach explained that he began painting the portraits after COVID broke out. “I saw a real transformation in people over time. In the beginning, people felt depressed or stressed, but as the months went on, I started to see them become more helpful. I have captured that transformation in my portraits.”
Zach led me to a portrait of a middle-aged man and stooped down to show me how the wood was much blacker at the bottom.
“This is from a flame thrower,” he explained, 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. With so many emotions churning inside of me and in society in general, my portraits evolved, becoming 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 led 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 asked Zach where he got his training. “CalArts grad school,” he replied. “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 asked 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 replied 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 painted portraits for individuals on a commercial basis, he usually hired 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.”
As Zach and I finished our tour of his collection, he left me with a thought that has stayed with me ever since. “Fire is really an extension of who I am. With it, I can capture the most beautiful parts of the human soul for all to appreciate in years to come. I am still amazed by what fire can do to wood. It doesn’t have to be destructive. Instead, it can capture the beauty we all have inside of us and leave us with portraits to enjoy.”
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