Exploring Visual Arts across Madison
Dec 23, 2013
09:05 AM

Stick Vega’s Explosive Art

Stick Vega’s Explosive Art

Three flowers spread open their delicate petals, their pure white color a beautiful contrast to hazy yellow backdrop.

This artwork, “B(l)oom,” is compelling, and it becomes positively intriguing when you learn its materials: gunpowder, fuse and acrylic on board.

It’s one of many creative works made by Stick Vega, a gunpowder artist who works out of his studio, The Blast Factory, here in Madison and in Chicago. Curious about his process and inspirations, I posed a few questions to the artist.

You call yourself an American gunpowder artist. What exactly does this mean?

Cai Guo-Qiang is a Chinese contemporary artist. He is known for his explosion projects and gunpowder drawings. I love his work. I learned much of the explosion art process from watching him. My art is smaller, more intimate, and has more color. My process has evolved. So, to answer your questions. I am from America. And it differentiates me from Cai.

How did you get started in gunpowder art?

I had been painting acrylic art for many years. After seeing Cai Guo-Qiang work, I spent a lot of time researching his process and materials. When I was ready for my first piece, I carefully mixed saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal. I put my mixture on a board in my “stick man” shape. Then, thinking it was not enough, I added more. Then even more. I put cardboard and rocks on top of the piece to force the blast back in to the board. Next, I added rocks to hold it down. I lit the fuse. The fuse burned much faster than expected and the work blew up. Rocks flew. There was a small fire ball. All the air was sucked out the area. And I was hooked!

I still have the piece. It is called "The Original Stick." Although for the most part, now I use less gunpowder! 

Shortly after that event I sold my company and resigned my position as CEO [of WinterSilks] to purse my art.

Tell me about your process of creating a piece.

Most of my pieces start with a pencil sketch on small scrap of paper. I have hundreds of ideas. Then, I will pick the base medium. I have used coated paper, bamboo paper, rice paper, plastic, wood, canvas and hardboard. All of them burn in different ways. I will paint background colors, most of the time with acrylic. Then I will lay gunpowder, fuse, stencils as needed. Rocks are used to hold the stencils in place. Then I will run fuse to the piece.

I light it. That is the best part. There is a moment of uncertainty. What is possible? Of what might happen? Hope! That is the moment of true art.

The piece explodes and burns. I always try to get photographs of the explosions. Each one is unique and beautiful.

When the smoke clears, I will vacuum, brush and scrape the artwork. 

Then, at that point, I will repeat the process as needed. I may paint more, or I may use more gunpowder and burning fuse to finish the piece. It’s a process to get to the shapes, colors and textures that look cool.

What role does chance play in your work and how do you embrace it?

Chance plays a big part in my work. About a third of the time the piece does not work. Sometimes it burns to a crisp. Sometimes it burns too little. The weather affects the burn. Wind and humidity change the results. There is a dynamic tension between the cool uncertainty of the burn and explosion and my desire to control it. I think that tension makes for good art. And each piece is totally unique, it can never be duplicated.

A good example is "I Love You When You Are Burning Flowers" [shown at left]. The fuses blew all over the place and created a double burned textures near the stems. And there was fog when I lit it. The water in the air created a fine cool droplet texture in areas of the work. Abstract. Figurative. It looks cool. 

How about danger? 

Burning high speed fuses and blowing things up with gunpowder is inherently dangerous. I have done it safely hundreds of times. I keep people at a safe distance. In a way, it is like doing fireworks at home. Use common sense.

What inspires you?

People. Color. Primitive cave art. Chinese calligraphy. Lately, I’ve been looking at a lot of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. My work blends the two. I call it Pop Expressionism. Plus, my work “pops” when it explodes!

Random acts of kindness also inspire me.

You say on your website, "The more gunpowder I use the less there is for killing." How important is this idea in the work you do?

This is the soul of Stick Vega. 

It’s ironic. Hundreds of years ago, Chinese alchemists discovered gunpowder working on research for eternal life. Shortly after, they discovered the powder produced in the explosions could propel objects, which made it attractive to the military to design weapons. It fostered great ways to kill from a distance.

There is too much violence. Too many people killed with guns. My hope is that people will see my gunpowder art and photoworks. That they will share it with others. Discover that there is another use for gunpowder than killing. The amount of gunpowder I use is tiny compared to the amount produced. But the more I use, the less there is for killing. With my art, I am striving to make the world a safer place. It is a great way to get up every morning. It keeps me motivated.

What’s the best part of working with gunpowder?

Lighting the fuse.

What are you working on now or have coming up? 

2014 is going to be a blast. I am developing work for two different shows.  I would like to do a large public explosion event in downtown Madison. I have some fun new Vega brand apparel that will be released January. I have some strong ideas for new video and photoworks. A friend from Texas suggested I try blowing up some metal, so I need to try that. I am working on a book regarding my former life as a CEO and now as an artist. Parts of it are in my blog. And, I have hundreds of ideas on small scraps of paper just waiting to be blown up. Yeah, it is going to be an explosive 2014!

Learn more about Vega and his work at stickvega.com.

Photos—from top to bottom of "B(l)oomm" the explosion that created "B(l)oom," "I Love You When You Are Burning Flowers" and Vega with "Bloom Three"—courtesy of Stick Vega. 

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About This Blog

A perk of being managing editor of Madison Magazine is the opportunity to delve into exciting aspects of the city—and Madison's art scene is one of my favorites. It's dynamic, diverse and always inspiring. Join me here for artist interviews, details on events, exhibition previews, reviews and more.

Find past arts coverage on my former blog.

– Katie Vaughn
Follow Katie on Twitter @katiemv

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