Burning Desire: John T. Unger’s Fire Bowls

By   |  Photo by Jesse Turnquist  |     |  Makers

A visit to the scrap yard inspired sculptor John T. Unger to create his iconic fire bowls. “I saw them cutting a propane tank,” he recalls. “They cut the end off and I saw this perfect bowl and immediately thought of cutting flames into it.” That was in 2005. Since then, the Hudson-based artist has created over 2,000 fire bowls, each one colored with a generous patina of rust and hand-cut with evocative designs. Unger’s fire bowls illuminate outdoor spaces in all 50 states and in 15 countries. “I thought I was only going to make one fire bowl,” he says. “Then people asked for another, and another.”
Unger uses reclaimed propane tanks for most of his bowls. “The world is full of stuff,” he says. “If I’m going to add to that I need to dip into the waste stream to counter it a bit. It’s being brought back into utility.”

Before making his first fire bowl, Unger spent months studying flame imagery. As with his other work—which includes fences, gates, trellises, and outdoor furnishings and sculptures (figurative, abstract, and kinetic)—Unger cuts each fire bowl freehand, using a flame torch.

No two designs are exactly alike, but each one recalls Unger’s former career as a poet in the Midwest. He strived to write poetry that had depth but was easily accessible. His imagery draws on a broad range of influences, from 50s hot-rod culture to Renaissance anatomical drawings to Central American prehistoric petroglyphs. “I want a surface read, that’s as clear as I can possibly make it,” he says. “But I can add layers of meaning for people who want to dig.”

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