Old City Jewish Arts Center presents ‘Smoke and Bullets: Steven Spazuk/Federico Uribe’s Painting wit

Interesting things happen when a painter lays down the brush; consider the work of the unconventional artists in Smoke and Bullets at Old City Jewish Art Center (OCJAC). Steven Spazuk, for instance, draws with an open flame, and Federico Uribe constructs woodland creatures from bullet casings.

Aside from sheer creativity, the exhibit showcases views of how humans do harm. Spazuk depicts grenades and landmines in nature, while Uribe employs actual munitions to build foxes and squirrels. Conclusions — whether about war, hunting, or guns — are left to the observer.

Spazuk had a dream

French-Canadian painter Spazuk had a career-changing dream in 2001. He saw himself drawing with fire, substituting soot for ink, a method known as fumage. Awake, the technique took time to master: on his first attempt, the paper burst into flame. This might have cured a less determined artist, but Spazuk was destined to become the fire painter.

“I hold paper over my head with one hand and use a candle (or a torch) with the other, creating trails of soot underneath the paper,” Spazuk explained to Yatzer.com. “Then I intuitively ‘sculpt’ the plumes of soot.”

Paintbrushes, birds’ feathers, and X-Acto knives permit him to add detail. Even seeing it happen, it’s hard to imagine using a candle or Zippo lighter to achieve the soft charcoal folds and daubs that become berries, branches, and birds feathered so finely you want to touch them.

Birds predominate in Spazuk’s work here, but unlike Audubon portraits, he has a point beyond documenting avian species. In Feeding Likes (2017), a mama bird perches next to her three hatchlings, clamoring for nourishment. She has brought them a blueberry bearing a tiny white hand, thumb up, which, Spazuk seems to imply, constitutes nutrition in the 21st century.

Uribe puts ballistics to new uses

A U.S. resident since 2000, Uribe hails from Colombia, a country that’s spent the last 50 years at war. He began as a painter but turned to creating sculptures from everyday objects, such as colored pencils, piano keys, even shoelaces.

The works on view at OCJAC come from his Bullet Shell Series, sculptures made from bullet casings and spent shotgun shells, a contemporary version of beating swords into plowshares. “I’m trying to make beauty out of the testimony of death,” he said in a 2016 video.

Uribe achieves considerable detail in his works without significantly changing the component material. Meerkat: The Lookout (2018) is a foot-tall sentinel made from some of the thousands of brass casings Uribe cleans by hand before assembling his creatures.

Spazuk's 'Smoky Owl' bears a dangerous prize in its beak. (Photo courtesy of OJCAC.)

The animal stands erect, front paws shading its eyes, alert and observant. The casings are blackened at the paws and eye area, with steely silver along its chest. Running Rabbit (Black/Gold Paws) (2018) is the reverse: a dark body with brassy shimmers inside the ears, on scampering feet, and along the belly.

Weapons of art

While Uribe makes art from weaponry, only one of the works on view has a militaristic theme: The General (2018). It’s a bust of an officer posing proudly, bearded face turned up, epaulets gleaming.

Conversely, several Spazuk pieces depict munitions, usually juxtaposed with birds. In Smoky Owl (2017), a white owl swoops out of a winter sky, coming straight toward the viewer, head turned and peering through a single golden eye. In its beak, it holds a silver ring attached to the metal pin from a grenade, which is falling almost off the canvas. The theme continues in Land Mine (2017), where a pair of birds hover over an explosive device, and in Chickadee on a Grenade (2017).

Like Spazuk, Uribe’s palette stays within the range of his raw materials. But shotgun shells are surprisingly colorful, as he demonstrates in Macaw (2017), a rainbow-hued bird in flight. The words rifled slug and tactical can still be read on the bird’s blue, yellow, red, and green feathers. Uribe also uses the shells to decorate The General’s chest.

Smoke and Bullets is the brainchild of Rabbi Zalman Wircberg, OCJAC executive director, and Adam Adelson of Boston’s Adelson Galleries, which represents both artists. When OCJAC hosted a 2017 show of Adelson clients, Wircberg noticed common themes in Spazuk and Uribe.

Drawing beauty out of potentially destructive substances, Spazuk and Uribe challenge us to see beyond conflicts that seem insurmountable.