Tatara Fire

Home / Artwork / Tatara Fire
Tatara Fire, painting, mural, ultraviolet, inkjet, mural

Tatara Fire ultraviolet inkjet on canvas 11 x 26 feet [126 x 311 in.] 2014

Tatara Fire was commissioned by the Columbia Museum of Art in 2013.  The museum wished to acquire a mural the would address historical themes about the city of Columbia S.C. which would serve the community both as an opportunity for esthetic engagement with artwork and as a impetus to speak about the cultural history of the city.  Here are some videos produced by the museum about the process of making the mural.



At the time I was working on a group of paintings with the theme of transformation through fire.  This was sparked by an exhibition of rare Samurai swords I visited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  It exhibition was stunning on many levels.  What caught my imagination was the nature of the steel created in an elaborate ritual with an exotic open kiln.

fire, tatara, steel, ancient, transformation, japanese

Ancient Tatara kiln with twin bellows.

In almost all pre modern cultures, Matter and Spirit were interfused.  The ancient Japanese imagined that an object could have a Numinus power, an other worldly power.  Over a thousand years ago artisans in Japan built upon earlier techniques from China and invented a way to make the strongest and purest steel ever made by hand.  They used fire alone and they used their eyes alone to do it.  And to ensure quality control they performed the transformation as a ritual.

Tatara is a large clay oven.  It’s a kiln, that is open on the top like a big square tub.   The bottom is built into the ground with a chamber to keep it dry and It has bellows attached to holes in the sides so that the whole thing can breath.  Once fueled with pine charcoal it becomes a blast furnace.  The artisans pushed heat and their power to see to a new level with a physical transformation through fire that was considered spiritual.  They mixed tons of iron sand gathered from the stream beds which flowed down from volcanoes, a very pure form of iron.  For three days and nights they do not sleep but continue to feed the Tatara.

When the color of the molten material turns to a certain brightness, around 2500 degrees Fahrenheit, they break apart the tatara revealing the jewel steel called Tamahagane.

tamahagane, jewel, steel, japanese, katana

Jewel steel called Tamahagane


Molten, steel, tamahagane, tatara, fire, japanese

Artisans breaking apart the Tatara to reveal Tamahagane steel

The Museum asked me to include within the context of the mural reference to local cultural history.  we discussed the approaching 150th anniversary of the burning of the city on February 17th 1865 at the end of the Civil War.  I saw the possibility of creating a new work that continued the theme of transformation through fire. But This work would bring different references together, layering its own stories into the composition of the work. I wanted to use some of the names and locations of buildings that sustained damage in the fires here. It was beyond the scope of the commission to directly memorialize the event, however by including the names and the places, ravaged by war along with other histories and processes whereby fire had transformed things beyond its original form, this could serve to create the right context for the entire artwork.  The intent was to aesthetically engage museum visitors with local history and spark conversations about these events

Civil war, Columbia, fire,

Illustration form Harper’s Weekly of the burning of Columbia S.C. in February 1865

I work in abstraction as a means to convey things which defy the usual path to understanding and thought.  I have worked out a way to use patterns as a visual language.  However, patterns have their own rationale.  I work in this space, not to distance myself from explicit depictions but to convey an essence that can only be perceived in this way.  In the moment, without familiar queues, a sympathetic reaction might take place below the level of thought.  Engaging on the level of feeling.

Sometimes when I look at Tatara Fire I imagine I see the shape of flames across the surface, But sometimes I also see a great bridge across the face of the painting.  In a traditional Japanese garden the world is represented in miniature, with small stones and rocks placed just so that they can resemble a mountain range.  Quite often there is a bridge that leads to a small island in the center of the garden. When you start on the bridge you are supposed to leave this material world behind you and by the tine you cross over to the island you have arrived at a spiritual place leaving the everyday world behind. I appreciate the idea that such a journey can be part of everyday life along with a walk in the park.

Japanese, garden, bridge, peace

traditional Japanese garden with a bridge to an island within.

There were several proposals and drafts presented to the committee considering the commission.  I had started with a proposal for the main atrium which would bridge two large sections for the mural.  Here are those concepts.

abstraction, mural, text, inkjet

Columbia Museum of Art install concept 1

text, mural, abstraction, inkjet

Columbia Museum of Art install concept 2


text, mural, abstraction,

Columbia Museum of Art install concept 3

text, mural, abstraction

Columbia Museum of Art install concept 4

Related Posts

Leave a Comment

Installation view of weightless at Judith Charles GalleryArray 12 B detail view