Hudson Sculptor John T. Unger Creates Great Bowls Of Fire
By Jamie Larson
If there’s one thing that’s been noticeably absent this season, it’s the sound of people kvetching about the cold. But freezing temps are inevitable, and when they arrive, there’s warmth and beauty to be had in one of sculptor John T. Unger’s firebowls — firepits hand cut from recycled steel.
A lineup of Unger’s greatest hits await the cold behind his quiet home and less quiet metalworking studio in Hudson, NY. A firebowl with the original flame design sits beside one shaped with curling waves. There is also a collection of seemingly simpler geometrically cut firebowls, more architectural and elemental.
Although he originally only intended to make one, over the past decade Unger has made close to 1,800 firebowls for clients in all 50 states and 16 countries. He’s designed works for high-end hotels, restaurants, even a castle in the Hamptons. His bowls have been featured in The New York Times, and on HGTV and the DIY Network.
“The meaning is encoded in the material,” he says. “The genesis of this whole project started while looking for materials in a scrap yard and I saw them cutting the ends off propane tanks.”
Unger is an interesting mix of practical tradesman and unfettered creative. His technique, which involves skillfully cutting into the rusted ends of propane tanks with a plasma torch, has given him the freedom to indulge his inspiration. He doesn’t seem to feel burdened by the big pile of as-yet-uncut tank ends in front of his shop. If he feels like it, he’ll go work on something else, like the new totem-like light fixtures he’s begun making, or his music or the massive mosaic he’s working on in his indoor studio.
That six-by-four-foot work is made of thousands of tiny pieces of marble and depicts the musculature of the human body in the style of a pre-photography medical reference drawing. The intricacy is daunting, the form is beautiful, and the craftsmanship is impeccable. There’s an artist’s touch to it that makes it mesmerizing yet approachable, as if it could just as easily hang in the finest museum as it could be used as an absurdly extravagant kitchen backsplash.
And, indeed, Unger intends to make 12 of these large mosaics for a future museum show. The scale and design of his ambitions feel like a mixture of artist and inventor.
“I grew up making stuff,” says Unger, who spent much of his youth in the woods of northern Michigan. “I had little supervision and a lot of power tools. I was inspired by nature in a deep way I wasn’t aware of for a long time. You can tell that that knowledge is so ingrained in the work.”
But it’s the firebowls that have captured the public’s attention, and for good reason. Customers can order one of the many designs on Unger’s website, or commission their own. Prices range from $800-$3,000. Each comes with a “Dynasty Guarantee,” meaning it will last many lifetimes says Unger, who has managed, through a soft touch on rough materials, to create vessels that mesmerize. And warm, when you need some heat.
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