Sculptor Ryon Gesink Masterfully Merges Metal and Fire

Art & Sculpture Craft & Design Metalworking Workshop
Sculptor Ryon Gesink Masterfully Merges Metal and Fire

If you’ve ever been to Maker Faire or Burning Man and been drawn, mesmerized, towards a huge fire-breathing sculpture, there’s a chance it was one of Ryon Gesink’s creations. Fashioned mainly from scrap metal and propane, Ryon’s sculptures bear a mythical quality, echoed in his divine titles — Kali, MolochThe Numinous Eye… We caught up with Ryon to find out a bit more about his inspirations, his advice, and how he got started.

If you’re looking to see some of Ryon’s creations this summer, he’ll be bringing one of his pieces to Maker Faire Detroit, July 30–31!

Moloch the Fire Demon. Photo by Shannon Corr
Moloch the Fire Demon. Photo by Shannon Corr

How did you make your way to fabricating large-scale metal sculpture?
I’m from Michigan originally, and I have a long history of collecting odd shaped metal objects and building model kits, little toy weapons and whatnot.

Also a lifelong fascination with pyrotechnics, explosions, and fire. My first Burning Man in 2000 opened my eyes to a place where evidently you could combine and run riot with these tendencies on a very large scale and somehow it seemed people weren’t getting hurt!

So I decided to learn welding and propane fire stuff and sort of grafted myself onto knowledgeable people who showed me how to do these things in underground art spaces across the Bay Area.

The Numinous Eye at Burning Man
The Numinous Eye at Burning Man 2005. Photo by Mike Woolson

What’s your process like? What kind of tools or special techniques do you use?
If an idea comes to me it often feels like it’s in my gut and I’ll draw variations of it for a while. If it stays with me for 6 months or more I know I will need to build it, it’ll sort of let me know it wants to be born. Like a gestation period.

Other times I’ll find a particularly unusual piece of metal or some weird mechanism, and I’ll hang on to it, sometimes for years, until things fall into place and it becomes the starting point for a new sculpture. For instance I found a steel maritime buoy on a beach in Oakland that became the center of a successful piece. Also I got my hands on a tailgunner machine gun ball turret from some old Navy plane that became the belly of one of the two Fire Demons.

As for tools, I just have a very basic metal fabrication shop set up, nothing digital or fancy. Welder, band saw, drill press, plasma cutter, clamps, and hand tools. And a fork lift or bridge crane. It’s amazing what you can do with just that simple tool set.

Kali the Fire Demon. Photo by Shannon Corr
Kali the Fire Demon. Photo by Shannon Corr

What inspires you?
Science and science fiction, all kinds of art and sculpture. Machinery and technology exhibiting the frightening impulses of humanity. The harnessing of giant forces by science, which are regrettably so often used for war.

My art likes to take a look at these things, and industrial detritus in general, and kind of personify them in a quasi-ritualistic way that can be shown more or less safely in a sculptural context, while inhabiting some iconic forms — the arch, the sphere, the seated figure, the vortex, and so on.

Ryon cruising Black Rock City
Ryon cruising Black Rock City

What’s the most difficult part? How do you overcome that?
Well it used to be just making the rent! But moving parts and mechanized things always have lots of challenges. Stuff likes to break and be difficult.

Finding venues that will take on large fire pieces can be tough. Fire marshals and liability can be a thing no one wants to deal with.

But right now by far the most difficult thing is the hyper-speed gentrification going on in San Francisco and Oakland that is causing lots of closures of art spaces and a mass exodus of artists, and is really damaging the culture that has been built up here over the years. The other thing is that it’s preventing fresh new artists from moving in here and stirring the pot. It really hurts my heart.

What reactions do you receive about your work?
I like to take an idea to its fully flowered optimal expression, which means I’m generally not satisfied unless the piece is quite large and scares the wits out of me. That’s how I stay interested.

I get a lot of good reactions, sometimes people see things in the pieces or in the fire patterns that I never would have. Like roses or skulls or phoenixes in the fire vortices. Those tend to be interesting interactions. I really like the surprises.

Moloch the Fire Demon gazing towards the Oscillation fire zoetrope at the Crucible's 2009 Fire Arts Festival in Oakland, California. Photo by Lois
Moloch the Fire Demon gazing towards the Oscillation fire zoetrope at the Crucible’s 2009 Fire Arts Festival in Oakland, California. Photo by Lois

Any advice for folks aspiring to do similar work?
Persistence pays off. Like years and years of it. Work work work. Be tenacious. Also, think through your idea. Don’t necessarily do the first thing that comes to mind — take that initial inspiration and experiment with it, multiply it, take it much further than you should, see if it’s got its own legs to stand on, make it as crazy and enormous as possible, and see if it’s still worth doing. Then scale and shape it to its appropriate form and size and go for it! Invite the happy accidents in. Take the detours the piece shows you along the way. Those can be so valuable and so often lead you to something much better than what you were originally going to do.


What are you working on currently?
I’m taking a piece to Detroit Maker Faire this summer. Everything else is TOP SECRET!

Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks to Maker Faire for putting on one of the funnest events in the world!

Speeding off into the night. Photo by Julian Cash
Speeding off into the night. Photo by Julian Cash
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Sophia is the managing editor of the Make: blog. When she’s not greasing editorial gears, she likes to run, ride, climb, and lift things, and make lo-tech goods like zines, desserts, and altered clothing. @sophiuhcamille

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