words :: Colin Field.
For Jon McTavish the idea of a sculpted bonfire came through a friend.
“My buddy was clearing their barn property and they had a huge pile of lumber to burn,” he says. “So they decided to build a burning man. Everyone came over, and he put a log up and a two-by-four across as arms. It looked like a giant cross. Everyone was like, ‘No, no no! Take that down!’ But it made me think it would be cool to build a big burning man. Then literally the next day a friend dropped off lumber from an old deck. A week later, the deck was my first dragon bonfire build.”
That was the Halloween before COVID, so the idea of gatherings and large bonfires is a bit tricky, but he’s built a few sculpted bonfires since then. An eagle, a flower and a swamp monster have all perished in the flames of festivities. He’s currently working on an ornate dragon head in Orangeville that will be destroyed in the near future.
McTavish, who lives in a self-built container home in the Town of The Blue Mountains, says he’s always considered himself more of a “creator” than an artist.
“As a kid, I loved building forts,” he says. “We’d always build cardboard knight armour and swords, and I always liked making stuff. Artistically it really started when I got into [the tabletop game] Warhammer. I got super into just making the models and painting them. I never got into playing the strategy game, but I love the realms and the worlds and painting them. That’s what really kicked off my visual art.”
Today much of his career is focused on graphic design for clients as varied as kids’ camps to breweries. He also creates digital art using an iPad, selling it using NFTs (non-fungible tokens)—units of authenticity for digital art.
“It’s kind of like buying an original painting or a signed artist’s print,” he says. “So if I make five copies of a piece, when I sell them all, they’re gone. Some people display it on a projector in their home, or on a TV that will cycle through their digital art.”
His digital art is definitely psychedelic, full of bright colours and fantastical themes. And the process of creating the pieces is similar to how he creates his sculpted bonfires.
“I feel like a lot of my work is reactionary to my first couple of strokes,” he says. “I put the first piece or shape or colour down and the piece is a reaction to that. You build it up in layers. They are simple shapes built on simple shapes. It’s layering and unfolding.”
His sculpture builds are also highly influenced by materials.
“I try to find old garbage lumber that someone was already planning on burning,” says McTavish. “I see what kind of lumber’s available, then once I have my material and a location, sometimes I look at the wood, or sometimes I just kind of have an image of a sculpture in my mind. I’ll do a quick sketch.”
As his experience continues to grow, his ability to predict how the fire will envelop the sculpture is influencing the end product.
“The sculpture is now being designed to burn a certain way, or direct fire a certain way, or create some action. The current one I’m building is a dragon head. The mouth actually opens and closes. It’s on a hinge, and there’s a counterweight. The mouth wants to open. I’m going to close it and put some rope around the mouth as if the dragon’s been captured. The fire will start in the nostrils and the eye sockets. It should melt the rope and the counterweight should open the mouth and there will be a tiny container of gas so there will be a bit of a fireball as the mouth opens.
And then it should be completely engulfed in flames. There’s been a lot of evolution in trying to make it burn a certain way. This is the most complicated sculpture I’ve built and there’s only one chance to get it right. But even if it doesn’t work, it’ll still be a bonfire.”
While McTavish has mainly built bonfires for his own enjoyment, he’s open to building for clients and can be contacted through his website.