On June 22, artist Otok Ben-Hvar celebrated the sixth anniversary of his Firecracker Art in the parking lot of a New Port Richey automobile dealer.
The white-haired 77-year-old paints with firecrackers, gunpowder, fuses, propellants and a fully loaded imagination. This time, though, he added a little gasoline.
"I was hoping for a little puff," said the New Port Richey resident. Instead, the combo resulted in a large fireball. He survived with a singed right hand and arm and second-degree burns.
Six of Ben-Hvar's mind-blowing works of Firecracker Art are now on display at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art at St. Petersburg College's Tarpon Springs campus. The exhibit runs through Aug. 24.
"There are so many hidden gems in his works," museum director Ann Larsen said. "He's the type that if you meet him you'll never forget him. He's very eccentric."
Prior to creating Firecracker Art (a passion of his since 2008), Ben-Hvar rode a lawn mower across the United States and got married in an ambulance (both stunts made it into the Guinness Book of Records). He was also crowned Mr. Inner-tube 1963.
He studied ballet at Juilliard and served in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division in the 1970s. He blew out his eardrums and broke a bunch of bones after his parachute malfunctioned during a jump. (He's legally deaf.) At 75, despite greatly impaired heart and lung function, he received his Goddard College Master of Fine Arts diploma after crawling 8 miles up Mount Washington Auto Road — in the freezing snow — to make a statement about his long, hard journey in life.
The ultimate patriot, Ben-Hvar contacted the mayor of Washington, D.C., along with each governor from every U.S. state, commonwealth and territory and asked them to send him a pound of their native soil. They all complied.
From the mixture of all 56 soils, he grew a maple tree, the "First National Tree," which was presented to the 107th Congress. Traveling more than 205,000 miles in 10 years, it went to all states, territories and commonwealths. He uses the soil, leaves and branches in his art.
No doubt, Ben-Hvar is his own masterpiece. Here are some interesting snippets about the ones hanging in the Leepa-Rattner:
DNA, Self Portrait, 2009: Thousands of facial hairs were carefully plucked, numbered and arranged on this photo of Ben-Hvar.
First National Tree Flag, 2009: The flag sculpture was made from 13 leaves from the First National Tree which represent the 13 original colonies. The small stripes are made from 21 of the tree's leaf stems. (Twenty-one stems were used because the total of the numbers in 1776, the year of the American Revolution, is 21.) The longer stripes are created from 50 stems. The flagpole, made from a branch, is topped with a tiny finial — a round glass vial filled with grains from the 56 soil samples.
Love Is All Around Us, 2013: This American Flag is actually a composition of 1,858 painted mini-firecrackers and 56 soil-filled firecracker stars. The blue canton was fashioned from 56 leaves from the First National Tree.
Peacock, Red Arrow Express and El Cid of Star Wars are three pyrotechnic acrylics on canvas.
While at the museum, be sure to check out the main exhibition, "An Arts Legacy: George Inness Jr. in Tarpon Springs," that's up through Aug. 31. The collection by the renowned American landscape artist (1853-1926) includes 13 of his dreamlike paintings on loan from the Unitarian Universalist Church in Tarpon Springs as well as those borrowed from a collection in Daytona Beach.
Another summer exhibition, "Mysteres de l'aquarelle: Works on Paper by Jack Barrett," features nine watercolors and collages by Barrett (1929-2008). The playful images of jesters, clowns and other lively creatures are gleeful reminders of the award-winning artist who worked for the Tampa Bay Times back when it was known as the St. Petersburg Times.
Contact Terri Bryce Reeves at [email protected]