I’ll be the first to say that when the annual office party rolls around, I do my best to find a prior commitment for that night. Mingling and listening to bad jokes is not my idea of a great time. However, when our CEO announces that this year we’re going to meet at the beach for our party and that we’re going to have Zachary Aronson, the world’s only fire painter, there to do portraits, I perk up. The idea of flamethrowers and blow torchers is enough to grab my interest, and for the first time in what seems like ages, I am actually looking forward to our company’s party.
Zach is easy to find when I arrive – he’s the guy surrounded by a crowd of very curious people, all of whom want to know how on earth a portrait can be made with only fire. I push politely through everyone, straining to listen to the answers he gives to the questions thrown at him. “Mahogany,” he says to someone as he balances a 6-foot wood panel against a freestanding installation that he designed for the event. “It’s a hard wood, meaning it won’t burn quickly, and I’ll have plenty of time to get in the details. I also use oak sometimes.”
Someone asks if they can try out the flamethrower, and everyone laughs. “Only if you’re sober,” Zach jokes. “Otherwise it’s hands off. Orders from the fire marshal.” Zach straightens and notices the direction of the wind, which he must always monitor. He rotates his station, using a building to block the wind, and seems satisfied. Zach turns around, smiles, and says, “Who would like their portrait to be painted?”
There is no shortage of volunteers, and the lucky winner is Alison, a woman from Accounting. It’s clear from how she sits – stiff as a board – that she thinks this portrait is going to be something out of the Victorian age – but Zach quickly corrects her, inviting her to relax and to tell him about what she does. Alison has already had a few drinks, so she immediately starts slamming her boss, making Zach and everyone else laugh. As I watch Zach get to work, I notice, however, that no matter how lighthearted he is, he still remains laser-focused on his job: to paint Alison’s portrait using only fire.
The burst of fire from Zach’s flamethrower quiets his audience, all of whom are intensely curious to see what will happen. I inch off to the side, watching closely as Zach directs the flame calmly and carefully over the wood. Is he painting Alison’s hair? Her eyes? I can’t tell yet, and I ask him how all of this works.
“It’s more like stone carving or whittling,” he responds, eyes focused on his painting. “With actual paint, you add to the picture and build on top of it. With fire, however, I am taking away from the wood or gradually burning into it.” He smiles a little, anticipating my question. “Yes, in the early days, when I was doing this as a grad student at CalArts, I made some mistakes. Thankfully those have become fewer and fewer.”
I comment that it must be hard to paint with fire on wood. My coworkers and I listen respectfully as Zach responds, “Not necessarily. Yes, I’ve had a lot to learn over the years, but I keep improving and deepening my ability. I’ve grown accustomed to how fire burns into the wood and can now use all of the shadows on a person’s face as a reference as I make the portrait. I work those things into the wood grain so that it feels more organic. The wood grain weaves in and out of the portrait in an intentional way. To me, this is just as easy or as natural as using oils or watercolors, perhaps even easier.”
My manager appears and comments that if he tried to do this, he’d set his house on fire. His joke makes everyone laugh again, and we all sit back to marvel as Alison’s eyelashes appear, her jawline, and her nose. After only 3 hours (and several more drinks on my part), Alison’s portrait is painted, and she is posing next to it with Zach as dozens of cell phones take gobs of photos to be posted on Facebook and Instagram accounts.
As the next model steps up, I shake Zach’s hand in sincere appreciation of his efforts. I tell him in all seriousness that this is the first office party I can remember enjoying, and he laughs again, thanking me. As I head off to the food table, I can only hope that at our annual Christmas party, Zach will be here again, dazzling us with his talent and innovation.
For more information on Zachary Aronson and his ability to paint portraits using only fire, please see: