Playing with fire

Coat hooks, fire pokers and a campfire pie iron: No, this isn’t a list of items found at a local rummage sale. It’s just a sampling of the items campers have designed and made during the summer programming at the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center in Minneapolis. 

Creativity and problem solving go hand-in-hand at the summer camps, which include classes on blacksmithing, sculptural welding, casting, jewelry fabrication and glass bead making. 

While there’s no shortage of summer art camps offered throughout the Twin Cities, Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center’s camps aim to introduce kids ages 8 and older to art forms they might not be exposed to elsewhere.

An instructor at Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center helps a camper learn the art of making glass beads over an oxy-fuel torch, known as flameworking or lampworking. Photo courtesy of Fred Panache

Lighting the fire

Camps, which are focused primarily on ages 13-18, include Blacksmithing Basics, Metal Arts Sampler, Sculptural Metal Casting, Flameworking: Make Glass Beads and Oxy-Acetylene Found Object Sculpture. 

Though experience level may influence the types of projects campers embark on, all campers leave the center’s week-long camps having made something. 

Brad Buxton, who teaches blacksmithing at the center, said students in his camp start making their first project, a spoon/bottle-opener combo within the first 15 minutes. This teaches campers the basics of the design process as well as safety guidelines and how to use tools. 

After that first project, students are given the freedom to let their imaginations run wild. 

“And then, from that, I hope they just kind of go on their own and start figuring out what to do,” Buxton said. 

During the blacksmithing camp — which involves shaping red-hot iron using a hammer — students make three to four projects. 

Last summer, one camper, Merrick, a 13-year-old from Golden Valley, made a spoon and bottle opener plus two other projects, including one he described as a “weird gadget.”

Merrick’s creations impressed his parents. But he also surprised himself.

“To be honest, I didn’t realize that I was capable of making these,” he said. 

Because campers have the freedom to design projects that interest them — and the support necessary to complete ambitious creations — campers make truly impressive pieces, said artistic director Heather Doyle. 

“The projects that kids are able to accomplish are really quite amazing,” Doyle said. 

They can go, she said, “as far as adults go, but sometimes further because they have no box.”

Carrying the torch

Fire art forms, like blacksmithing, are inherently resource-intensive due to the equipment, expendable materials and space required to work safely, which means many people don’t have access to them.

In addition to its summer camps and courses offered throughout the year, the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center also partners with a number of local schools and even offers programming for alternative learners and home-schooled children. 

Executive Director Victoria Lauing said the center is excited to work with outside organizations and carry the torch for industrial arts programming. 

Lauing said the resource-intensive
nature of the art form has brought together a growing community of fire artists.

It also doesn’t hurt that TV shows such as Forged in Fire — a bladesmithing competition series that airs on the History channel — have also reignited interest in the fire arts. 

Merrick said his mother signed him up for the blacksmithing camp, “his favorite camp ever,” because he and his friends enjoy watching the show.

Many blacksmithing campers continue to work and learn at the center, and instructors and artists always enjoy seeing familiar faces. 

Adult artists work in the space during camps, too, which gives campers the opportunity to see more advanced work and learn from other creators. 

Safety is a priority at the center, which gives children and adults in their classes the same safety tutorials. Precautions include the right clothes, protective gear and best practices. 

Instructors also incorporate multiple methods of teaching into their lessons, first giving information, then walking students through the process and later repeating it. The model has proven successful, Doyle said. 

“It allows people to overcome that anxiety of ‘there’s a piece of 2,500-degree metal in my tongs,’” Doyle said. “Plus, it’s really empowering to work with fire — and people want to do it.”

At the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center, day campers learn to make art out of forged metal, molten glass and more in a safe environment. Photo courtesy of Scott Streble

Sparking creativity

One of the draws to blacksmithing and other fire art forms is that they are accessible to those who think analytically as well as those who think creatively. 

Imagination is crucial to thinking up an original concept for a new piece. But practical drafting and layout are also required to design a project. Campers rely on teamwork and problem solving to successfully navigate the process.

For camps and classes that incorporate found objects into artwork, understanding how individuals interact and see the world around them is important, Doyle said.

“I have so many people take consumables, things like the welding rod, and use them as part of their sculpture,” said Doyle. “People take things out of context and realize that the possibilities are limitless, and that applies to many other areas of life.”

A willingness to experiment is also required, as certain processes with fire arts are inherently unpredictable. 

“You have to figure out alternatives if one way doesn’t work,” said Merrick, who accidently started to form a spoon on the wrong end of his first project. 

Merrick, who wants to continue to learn blacksmithing, said that while projects can be difficult to finish, the hard work pays off in the end.

“You’re working so hard and then you’re finally able to use it and be done with it,” Merrick said. “It’s just really satisfying.” 

A student in the Metal Arts Sampler camp at Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center works with an instructor to use a handheld plasma cutter. Photo courtesy of Fred Pana


Helen Sabrowsky is a University of Minnesota journalism student. She served as the 2019 summer writing intern at Minnesota Parent.