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Artist of the Month - July 2005

Fullam Fulminates
By Annabelle Numaguchi

When 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.

Fullam 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.

Although 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 Fireworks, Inc.

The labor involved in putting together and setting off a firework’s 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 re-packed.

Fireworks photos courtesy of Bego Gerhart.

Although Fullam 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 techniques.

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.


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