I think about Rick Fullam, a pyrotechnist who paints the
night sky with his multi-colored and multi-shaped fireworks,
it’s easy to start playing with words to describe
him and his craft. Do I say he’s the kind of artist
who “shoots for the moon,” or “always
goes out with a bang?” Words like “sizzling,
dynamite and dazzling” leap to mind as double entendres
that describe how good he is and the fiery medium he’s
working with. I think what struck me first, however, was
the similarity between his name and the word “fulminate,” which
means “to cause to explode with a loud noise.” Fulminate
captures the essence of what Fullam does. But, to capture
the nuance of his art, one needs a more detailed, fuller
(if you will) vocabulary than these catchy phrases and
word play allow.
To begin with, defining a pyrotechnist like Fullam is tricky; he is part
artist, part scientist, part magician.
Along with understanding chemistry and pyrotechnics, he uses timing,
choreography and a general sense of aesthetics to create entertaining
fireworks displays. The performance combines color, sound and composition.
Fireworks photos courtesy
of Bego Gerhart.
Fullam likens his craft to music in
that there are different acts and pacing which culminate
in a cathartic finale. In fact, he uses musical terminology
to describe the breakdown of his performances: the opening,
segments, interludes, the prelude, a false finale (which
so easily beguiles the viewer into thinking the show is
just about over) and the real finale.
A well-rounded musician, Fullam plays drums, guitar and
piano. He also studied theater in college, and these interests
are reflected in the artistry of his pyrotechny. He uses
his well-honed sense of timing and pacing effectively in
programming his shows to enhance the audience’s
suspense and awe. He claims that, “music and fireworks are pretty
close to magic. The closest thing you can get to magic or what appears
to be magic.”
The more one discovers about Fullam’s background, the more one
understands how unescapable his destiny was to become a pyrotechnist.
As well as music, he has studied magic. His interest in manipulating
illusions began at twelve years of age when a neighbor who was a retired
stage magician offered to share the secrets of the trade and put his
stage props at Fullam’s disposal.
believes that fireworks are a kind of magic. They are a universal language
that translates into any culture. He describes the beauty of his art
as creating a “feeling of joy and awe that suspends everyday
life for an interim.”
As the word “pyrotechnist” suggests, there is also a technical
component behind creating the breathtaking nighttime displays which are
the medium for his creativity. One of the fascinating aspects of Fullam
and his craft is this blend of art and science.
Fullam’s interest in the chemistry involved in manipulating gun
powder and sparks dates back even earlier than his interests in music
and magic. When Rick, a native of Long Island, was a young boy of only
seven or eight, he would visit his uncle, a Detroit cop, who would load
him up with fireworks, which, quite literally, sparked his interest.
By ten, he was making his own fireworks and putting on backyard displays
for the neighbors. To obtain the chemicals he needed, he would forge
his father’s signature for the pharmacist. He is mostly self-taught,
although he now belongs to the Pyrotechnics Guild International, and
exchanges knowledge with other people in his field wherever he travels.
Fullam has mastered the formulas for creating fireworks,
he currently buys them, mostly from China and from a U.S.
company who also services Disney, for his business, Fullam’s
The labor involved in putting together and setting off
display is as intense as the heat they create. On average, a show will
include a thousand mortars, the large tubing of varying diameters used
to shoot off the fireworks.
Fullam spends two to three weeks before the show preparing. On the day
of the show, he employs a five-man crew to assist him. The day usually
begins just after the sun has risen even though the performance cannot
begin until the sun goes down. His crew’s job doesn’t end
until well past midnight once the equipment has been disassembled and
courtesy of Bego Gerhart.
often has people curious about this ancient, scintillating
art volunteer to be included on his crew, few show what
he aptly calls “the spark.” He
can tell from a person’s demeanor and questions whether
they have the real passion required for becoming a pyrotechnist.
Interestingly, Fullam claims that there are fewer licensed
pyrotechnists in the world than brain surgeons. Considering
the labor and risk involved, it’s no wonder.
To mitigate the risk of injury, Fullam and his crew use electronically-fired
mortars. They load them on site and Fullam works the artistry of the
choreography and timing into the electronics as well as specialized fusing
Although he has about five pre-arranged shows, he can tailor his performances
to specific occasions. For example, at a wedding he can focus on the
couple’s favorite colors and include romantic symbols, such as
hearts. This sounds easier than it is.
Launching a two-dimensional image hundreds of feet into the night sky
and having it explode on the proper plane so it’s shape is recognizable
to the spectators below is about as chancy as finding true love. Fullam
compensates for challenges like this by firing several hearts at once
so that at least one will appear as intended. Obviously, years of experience
and interest culminate in a deep understanding of this unique and expansive
medium he uses.
I’ll resist the temptation to use words like “hot” or “he’s
on fire” to describe Fullam’s success in pyrotechny. Capturing
the complexity of his unique artistry requires a broader stroke of my
pen. Fullam’s craft and expertise in it deserve a serious, close
assessment, which his audience probably rarely gives him. After all,
when we’re watching his art shoot up and explode colorfully in
the darkness and stillness of the night, we, too, are suspended in amazement
and bursting with joy at the beauty and magic of it all, not thinking
about the man pulling the strings behind the curtain.
Next time you watch “the bombs bursting in air” which Rick
Fullam is providing for the city of Moab on this Fourth of July, pause
a moment to fully enjoy the richness of this explosive art form. And
then, relax and let yourself be transported into the magic that even
logic and reason cannot extinguish.