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Playing With Sculptural Firebowls

by Belinda Recio

Artist John T. Unger’s beautiful and functional sculptural firebowls
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John T. Unger likes to play with fire. He uses a plasma torch that burns at 45,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 4.5 times as hot as the surface of the sun and the core of the earth, to transform steel tanks into his Sculptural Firebowls™. Unger’s sculptural firebowls are functional and can be used with wood or gas. They are also artwork, with decorative edges he cuts into flames, waves and other patterns that frame the firelight to create a dance of mesmerizing shadows.
Since creating the first “Great Bowl O’ Fire” in 2005, Unger has shipped his firebowls to all 50 states and 16 countries. We asked Unger to tell us about his 10-year journey with firebowls.
OSM: What first inspired you to work with fire and steel?
JTU: One day I was looking for art material in a scrapyard and saw a propane tank with the ends cut off. I immediately had the idea to make a huge fire pit with cut flame designs. At the time, I thought it was just a one-off. But 1,600 firebowls later…
OSM: You have been known to say that if your job as an artist is to fill the world with “more things,” then it is important that you reclaim materials from the waste stream to make space for your work. Can you tell us about the sustainability aspect of your work?
JTU: Sustainability is a major focus of my work as an artist. My firebowls are made from 100 percent recycled materials, and the steel is 100 percent recyclable. All the scrap generated in my studio is either used in other artwork or recycled. The warm rust finish requires zero maintenance and no chemical treatments. The heavy steel holds and radiates heat like a wood stove, providing more warmth for less fuel.
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OSM: You offer a “dynasty guarantee” that promises your firebowls will last between one and several human lifetimes. This strikes me as another sustainable aspect of your work.
JTU: Absolutely. I want to make work that will last and be used for as many years as possible. My firebowls are made of quarter-inch steel, which ensures the bowl will last many generations in any climate. Most of my firebowls should last between 500 and 1,000 years.
OSM: You often talk about the ways recycled materials can change perspectives. Can you say more about this?
JTU: The use of recycled materials has the potential to engage our imaginations in unpredictable ways. It challenges our assumptions about what is trash, what is art, how we value things and how we use things. If one thing can be turned into another, what else can we change? Successful recycled art encourages change and creativity in others—it’s alchemical, magical, subversive and transformative by nature.
OSM: I imagine your firebowls are often used ritualistically, in backyard fire circles, at spas and perhaps even at churches and other spiritual meeting places.
JTU: People respond to my firebowls as more than just decorative or functional work. From the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago to the Iron Horse Biker Church of Axtell, TX, my firebowls have been commissioned and used by a number of churches and spiritual traditions.
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OSM: You often talk about minkisi, a term from the Kongo people that refers to a spiritually invested object. Minkisi sculptures are created with symbolic materials that relate—either literally or through word play—to the ritualistic purpose for which it is intended, such as a specific health, social or political outcome. How does the concept of the minkisi find expression in your firebowls?
JTU: It’s about choosing materials that reinforce the meaning and the desired effect of the work. I use a torch to cut flame imagery into what once was a flammable gas tank, in order to create a firebowl that will hold the flames of fire. It’s about materials and meanings working together.
OSM: Prior to making firebowls, you were a poet, designer, illustrator, teacher, musician, actor and set designer. It seems fitting that you are working with fire, which symbolizes transformation and regeneration. Do you think you have finally found your perfect medium? Or might you rise again as something new?
JTU: I’m sure I’ll rise again. You’re never done until you’re done. Maybe not even then, if you’re lucky. Who knows?

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