The Feng Shui of Fire
Of the three, Kelly Gale Amen is the hardest to miss. He's bald, outgoing and likes to tie a sweater around the neck below what his bio describes as a "curiously handsome face and the most heartwarming smile." The interior designer started building "functional sculpture" when he couldn't find the right piece of furniture to complement a client's pool. One of the popular pieces, some of which can be found at the Museum of Natural Science, represents at least 20 hours of backbreaking work.
His partner, painter John Palmer, is younger, boyishly good-looking and not prone to speak even when spoken to. It takes him about four hours to paint each of Amen's pieces of metal or wood furniture.
Jay Branson's the photographer. It's his job to snap a shot of these pieces as they burn. The resulting photographs will be on view in an exhibit at Amen's compound appropriately titled "Fire."
"There's nothing neutral about it. You have to react to it," Amen says. "We never think of fire the same. People are always clear about what they're feeling."
Some of the furniture was burned on a boulder in Amen's pool with lighter fluid, which also set the surface of the water ablaze. Fire and water, Amen says, have the same rhythmic movement. "And both can kill," Palmer offers. Fire can be dangerous or mesmerizing. Fire transforms things. And fire can make a pretty picture.
None of this, however, explains how the exhibit came to be. Fire is also the name of Amen's dalmatian and companion of 11 years. "When I scream 'Fire! Fire!' [My neighbors] know it's me," Amen says. The dog's seen better days -- the scar where the vet removed a tumor from his head is still clearly visible. To cheer his pooch up, Amen created a show, "Degrees of Fire," where 15 artists contributed works exploring different ideas of the word. As the three sat around afterward wondering what to do for an encore, Amen jokingly suggested they combine forces by burning the furniture.
"Fire" will be part of the biennial citywide photography exhibit known as FotoFest that enlists the cooperation of virtually every gallery in Houston. This particular show will take place on Amen's amazing compound, actually two homes connected by a walkway and a third used as a gallery space. (The grounds have been featured on Home & Garden Television's Extreme Homes.)
There will be a small preburned nightstand and singed glass-top table for people to see the before and after; both are for sale and still usable. They also happen to be the only way to get a look at Palmer's work, burned as it may be, since the bright flames drown out any paint job the pieces may have had, so the furniture looks black in the photographs.
No hard feelings, though. In this case, fire isn't destructive, but a catalyst for creating something completely new. As Amen says, "Once you give it to the universe, it's not destroyed."
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