Tame the Flame
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Tame the Flame

May 30, 2023

Charles Darwin considered fire andlanguage the two most importantdiscoveries of humankind.Of those, fire has been a symbol ofdestruction and creation. We admire itsbeauty, fear its destructiveness and harnessits power. East interviewed two groups ofpeople whose careers revolve around fire:firefighters and artists. They describe howthey found their calling to work with andaround fire and the passions that drive themto continue their work.

The front lines of firefighting

When the alarm rings, they spring into action. With sirens blaring and lights flashing, they rush toward danger while others flee from it. They face smoke, flames and the unknown with courage and selflessness. They are firefighters, the people who put their lives on the line to protect our communities.

Beyond the iconic image of firefighters battling infernos, there is a story of sacrifice, camaraderie and resilience. Kevin Fontana ’94 ’03, Lauren Griffin ’13 ’14 and Derrick Ingram ’00 have more than 60 years of firefighting experience among them.

You might recognize Ingram’s name. He’s in the ECU Athletics Hall of Fame for his track accomplishments in the 1990s. “I was looking for a career job in the Greenville area that would help me provide for my family,” he says. “I met a former Greenville Fire/Rescue employee who told all the great things GFR had to offer. I applied the next day.”

Now a captain with the department, Ingram says the rewards come from knowing he’s “helping people in their time of need. I enjoy helping and providing education to the citizens of this city.”

Derrick Ingram ’00

Griffin started firefighting when she was in high school in northern Virginia. Her curriculum required volunteer hours, so she became a junior firefighter.

“I was an overachiever, so I got like 10,000 hours,” she says. Even though music was her focus as a youth, she eventually received degrees in education and counseling at ECU. She taught with Pitt County Schools for seven years as an English teacher and counselor, but she missed firefighting.

During a vacation to Belize, a nearby restaurant caught fire. Griffin got in the bucket brigade ferrying water from the ocean to douse the flames. Inside her head, a voice kept talking. After returning home, she saw an ad for a career fair at GFR.

“That little voice says you need to do fire and rescue,” she says. “I haven’t looked back. I just had a calling. Every year I was without fire and rescue in my life, there was something missing.” She’s also a paramedic.

For Fontana, it was seeing volunteer firefighters work to save a neighbor’s burning house — community members who had also helped his family during difficult times. He was 20 at the time and talked with one of the firefighters afterward.

Jessica Blackwell ’17

“I thought volunteering would be a way to repay the community for supporting my family,” says Fontana, who’s an instructor in the College of Business.

Keeping your cool when things get hot

In 2022, GFR responded to 74 building fires and 55 cooking fires confined to a container, according to Jessica Blackwell ’17, public information officer and fire educator. For all types of fires, from vegetation to vehicles, firefighters responded to 148 fires in 2022 and 174 in 2021. According to the National Fire Protection Association, every 23 seconds, a fire department in the United States responds to a fire somewhere in the nation.

For firefighters, staying calm at a fire scene is a matter of training and experience. Griffin says yoga also helps. “Some people get really excited, overenergized, but I find a calming in putting on my gear, breathing,” she says. “I’ll constantly monitor my breathing, bring my heart rate down, conserve my air. But it’s also an adrenaline rush. Within five to 10 minutes, the main job is done, but it’s so physically strenuous.”

How strenuous? She says not as much as moving into Legacy Hall as an 18-year-old. “Walking up all the stairs — I still remember the day my parents helped me move into that dorm. Lugging all that equipment is nothing compared to moving into my dorm,” she says with a laugh.

“I try to lean back on my fire training to manage my emotions at incident scenes,” Ingram says. “I don’t think I have ever been scared due to training.”

Looking ahead

Firefighting jobs are expected to grow at about a 4% rate through 2031, most with local departments, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means about 28,000 openings each year to replace workers who retire, move to other jobs or leave the workforce.

Sources: American Red Cross, FireRescue1

Griffin’s 7-year-old son, Asher, wants to follow in his mom’s footsteps.

“He wants to be a firefighter,” she says.

Fontana is coming out of a recent volunteer hiatus due to family illness and preparing for his daughter’s wedding. He plans to pick up his volunteer work this summer. Why? He goes back to that day 30 years ago when he saw local men and women risk their lives.

“It’s all about public service and the importance of volunteering to help your community,” he says. “Volunteer firefighter numbers are down across the state. If I can help sound the alarm — pardon the pun — I will do so when possible.”

Pottery tells Owen’s multigenerational story

Committing pottery to the fire is one chapter ina unique story of each piece. Flame, heat and timechange the clay and glaze, creating vessels with color,character and texture. It’s a story Ben Owen III’s familyhas told for generations in Seagrove.

Owen ’93 says his work is at the mercy of thefire when placed in a wood-fired kiln, where flamesurrounds the vessels. Smoke and ash can also affectthe glazes and can change the state of the materials inthe glaze. Owen finds the interaction and the outcomeexciting. He’s spent years studying to enrich his craft.

“I learned my craft the traditional way, passed downfrom my family and other potters in the area, notrelying on modern technology,” Owen says. “I wantedto understand why all these things worked the way theydid and how our family manipulated these materials,transforming a lump of clay into a vessel of purpose.”

Owen brought his family knowledge to ECU tostudy under professors and artists, including ArtHaney and Chuck Chamberlain. As a student, he wasindulged with access to labs, freedom to do researchand the opportunity to learn how different materialswork. Owen focused on ceramics but took on a well-rounded curriculum that allowed him to look at whathe did with clay in interaction with other elements,such as woodworking, painting and blacksmithing. ForOwen, it added depth to his knowledge of pottery.

“ECU had such a great foundation of materials andequipment to use, plus we had the opportunity tobuild a wood kiln while learning the fundamentals ofhow to control the fire successfully,” Owen says.

Ben Owen emerges with a vasefrom a wood kiln firing at BenOwen Pottery in Seagrove.

Every firing isdifferent, andeach piece hasa unique markfrom the firing.

Ben Owen III

Owen describes a wood kiln firing as a performance.Each performance inspires Owen’s journey of creatingpieces that will be in the next story. A couple ofmonths of work go into wood firing. He typicallyprepares four or five wood firings a year — dictated bywhat he makes and commission work as needed. Eachfiring can include 300-400 pieces. A larger kiln has thecapacity for up to 1,500 pieces.

Ben Owen retrieves vessels from the kiln, where his work is at the mercy of the fire. Every firing is different, and each piece has a unique mark from the firing.

“You set out a goal and a road map for what youwant for the pieces and how you think it will turnout. Just when you are sure how the results may be,the firing, materials, weather or plan provides theunexpected,” Owen says. “Every firing is different,and each piece has a unique mark from the firing. Istill get nervous but excited every time we reveal theresults from the process.”

The flames, heat and artistry of an iron poursparked the imaginations of Aaron Earley’10, James Dudley ’11 and Ella Snow ’17 andeventually fused them together as partners andstaff at Cricket Forge in Durham.

The attraction to sculpture and fire beganfor them as students at ECU’s School of Artand Design. Iron pours are a team effort,“a sort of dance to create art,” Dudley says.Iron is melted to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit,collected and poured into wood and sandmolds for iron casting. The wood burns, andsand and wood fuse with the cooling iron,creating the cast sculpture.

“It was a thing we practiced at ECU andhardly anywhere else at the time,” Earley says.

“It was the most amazing thing I had everseen,” Dudley says. “All I knew was I needed todo this. Whatever this is, this is my future.”

At Cricket Forge, the trio and their co-workersare still drawn to the flames and heat. Theyspecialize in metal art furnishings, steel indoorand outdoor furniture, garden benches, custommetal work and sculpture. Earley and Dudleybecame owners of the business with partnerJonathan Paschall. Snow joined in 2021.

Each day is a mixture of small-businessmanagement, maintenance, marketing, customerservice, fabrication and creation. In the creationof their production and custom work, fire is thecreator, manipulator and finisher of their art.They work with plasma energy, heat treatmentsand traditional blacksmith forging in the facility.“It’s essentially a handheld flame thrower with a metal wire thrown in,” Snow says.Propane and oxygen feed into the sprayer to create the fire. Zinc wire meets theflame, melts and sprays onto the metal work. “It looks like it should be a prop in aspace movie with constant flame coming out of the front as you coat the surface ofthe product.”

Cricket Forge staff partnered with Don Drumm Studios on the fabrication and assembly of Drumm’s sculpture Sun Tracker. The piece stands at over 18 feet tall, is built from 5/8-inch stainless steel sheet and is on display in Akron, Ohio.

ECU School of Art and Design graduates, from left, Ella Snow, Aaron Earley and James Dudley are drawn to the flames and heat in their work at Cricket Forge in Durham.

As a co-owner and fabricator, Dudleyis working with metal as he always knewhe was meant to. His work often includescreating tools used at Cricket Forge. Healso works with clients to design customwork and maintains the shop equipmentand infrastructure.

“You can’t help but be inspired by whatyou see in the shop,” Dudley says. “Wecreate a lot of scrap metal whose shapeshave influenced countless artists outside ofCricket Forge in creating their own art.”

One of the things we’ve carried with us from ECU is that sense of community and how to work as a team.

Aaron Earley,co-owner of Cricket Forge

Over 24 years, the butterflies and creations of CricketForge have found homes across the country, including theentirety of the Duke University campus. Earley also hasseen one of their sculptures installed at an overlook on theside of a mountain.

DOUG BOYDPATRICIA EARNHARDT TYNDALLCharles Darwin considered fire andlanguage the two most importantdiscoveries of humankind.The front lines of firefightingPottery tells Owen’s multigenerational storyForging art with fire and steel