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Friday, September 29, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Burning Passion

Seattle Times visual art critic

As a high-school student in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Ted Batchelor dreamed that he jumped off the 25-foot waterfall his town is named after, his body fully engulfed in flames.

At 10 p.m. on May 20, 1976, with 100 people watching, he acted out his dream.

Since that first ignition - but now as a professional stuntman and performer - Batchelor has set himself on fire more than 130 times.

Batchelor will be in Seattle next week to stage a dramatic full-body ignition for "The New Prometheans International Fire Arts Festival." The festival, named for the Greek hero who stole fire from the gods, is part of a burgeoning movement to establish fire as a valid art medium.

"New Prometheans" begins today at Seattle Asian Art Museum with a panel on the art and psychology of fire, and culminates with an evening of fire arts at 8 p.m. Oct. 7 at the former naval station at Sand Point.

Organized by artist Astrid Larsen for the Center on Contemporary Arts, in collaboration with the Nordic Heritage Museum, 911 Media Arts Center and other local arts organizations, the festival features an international cast of fire artists. Among them are West German videographer and performance artist Kain Karawahn, who first gained attention for a fire event he staged in 1984 at the Berlin Wall, and sculptor Gunnar Carl Nilsson of Sweden, founder of the European Fire Sculpture Championship.

Just what is it that got so many artists hooked on fire?

"It's very primal, for one thing," Larsen says. "Everyone is aware how dangerous it is. . . Working with fire is like working with wild animals; you can't turn your back on it for a moment."

Batchelor, reached by phone in Chagrin Falls, says he has enormous respect for the danger of what he does. "You don't want to mock fire because you'll lose every time. The fear of fire is really healthy. Anyone who doesn't have it has something wrong."

Performing a full-body burn takes intense psychological preparation, he says. There are also physical precautions to make, including protective apparel. Even so, he ended up with second-degree burns on his arms after one performance. Batchelor offers only one piece of advice: Don't try this at home!

To stage "New Prometheans," festival organizer Larsen had to overcome some prejudice against the idea. Four years ago, with a lot of enthusiasm but little experience in such things, Larsen organized a fire arts event for CoCA called "Burning Point," also held at Sand Point. "It was kind of a flop," she admits.

Due to a mix-up in planning with the Fire Department, three of the performances were shut down before they started. Neighbors complained about parking problems, and the event had to be stopped in mid-show while cars were moved. "It was nightmare after nightmare," Larsen said.

This time, she's savvier about working with city authorities and has a good relationship with an inspector in the fire marshal's office, Capt. Joel Andrus. Andrus and other inspectors help plan for the use of fire in public events, from Kiss concerts to Seattle Opera.

"We've been doing planning on this for quite a while," Andrus said. "We've obviously looked at it very closely. Our role is to help maintain a safe environment." Preparations for the event included a test burn at the site, with fire inspectors attending.

Ironically, the Fire Department will be conducting some pyrotechnics of its own at Sand Point on the same day as the "New Prometheans" performance. An old building at the former naval base is scheduled to burn in a training exercise for the department on the morning of Oct. 7.

Larsen is quick to point out that "fire art" is not about playing with fire or simply burning up a piece of art. Fire should transform the piece, not destroy it. The artwork must hold its integrity before, during and after ignition.

A good example is the work of Bay Area sculptor John Roloff, a participant in "New Prometheans." A professor at San Francisco Art Institute and former student of renowned California funk artists Robert Arneson and William T. Wiley, Roloff started off firing his ceramic pieces in a kiln. Then, as his concepts grew more focused on landscape and the environment, he transferred the kiln process to monumental pieces of outdoor sculpture, with the firing a spectacular event in itself. His cement sculpture, "Humboldt Ship," created in 1989, looks like a premonition of the huge hull of the New Carissa foundering on the Oregon coast. Within the form, like skeletons of a burned forest, are the charred shadows of standing trees.

Fire is fast becoming officially recognized as a serious art medium. Neil Watson, curator of contemporary art at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., is organizing an exhibition titled "Burn," scheduled to open in March, that includes artists who use fire, smoke and ash in their work.

Batchelor, on the other hand, isn't an artist per se, Larsen says. She invited him to participate in "New Prometheans" because of his intuitive skills, his creativity and his unusual relationship with fire. He has twice performed at Burning Man, an annual festival that draws more than 20,000 to the Nevada desert and culminates in a celebratory nighttime burning of a huge sculpture. Batchelor's incendiary performance, called "Heaven and Hell," will include vocal accompaniment by Seattle mezzo-soprano Janna Wachter.

"I think of myself as a stuntman," says Batchelor, who majored in filmmaking in college. "A stuntman with a larger vision."

Although he has performed stunts for commercials and a movie, Batchelor doesn't approve of the way fire is exploited by Hollywood to shock and terrify audiences.

"That world really cheapens it," Batchelor says. "The New Prometheans look at fire the correct way: They respect it."

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Here's the schedule of events

Here's the schedule of events for "The New Prometheans International Fire Art Festival." For information, call 206-728-1980 or check www.cocaseattle.org.

-- "Fire Festivals," lecture and discussion, with Crimson Rose and Carl Smool, moderated by John Boylan, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. today, Seattle Asian Art Museum, Volunteer Park, 1400 E. Prospect St., Seattle.

-- "Women and Fire" and "The Psychological Underpinnings of Fires," two roundtable discussions moderated by John Boylan, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. tomorrow, Center on Contemporary Art, 65 Cedar St., Seattle, $5, free to CoCA members.

-- "FIRES under FIRE," video art installation by Berlin artist Kain Karawahn, will be on display in 911 Media Arts Center's storefront windows, dusk until dawn tomorrow through Oct. 13; video screening and artist lecture, 8 p.m. Thursday, 911 Media Arts Center, 117 Yale Ave. N., Seattle, free, $3-5 for the video screening and lecture.

-- Fire sculpture slide presentation and lecture with John Roloff, an environmental sculptor, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Kane Hall, University of Washington campus, Seattle, $5.

-- Slide presentation and lecture by Gunnar Carl Nilsson on the European Fire Sculpture Championship, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nordic Heritage Museum, 3014 N.W. 67th, Seattle, free.

-- "Burning Desire at the Lava Lounge," with the Sexy Raffle Girls from the Cirque de Flambe. 9 p.m. Oct. 6, the Lava Lounge, 2226 Second Ave., Seattle. $10.

-- Ignitions at the former naval station at Sand Point. Ted Batchelor's "Heaven and Hell," with mezzo-soprano Jann Wachter; "fireselfmusicianized," a musical performance/tribute to Jimi Hendrix featuring six flaming guitars; the Pacific Northwest Fire Sculpture Championship, a competitive fire sculpture event; and Trimpin's "FireOrgan." 8 p.m. Oct. 7, 7400 Sand Point Way N.E., Seattle. $12. Attendees must be 14 or older.

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Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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