October 4, 2011 — One night, when Rosemarie Fiore was an undergraduate art student at the University of Virginia, she had a dream. In it, she walked through a room filled with floating paint, navigating its layers.
Though she didn't yet know it, her idea for working with colored smoke had already started taking shape.
Even then, Fiore, a 1994 graduate of the College of Arts & Sciences who is now an artist based in New York, was "processing paint by imagining it as smoke as a medium of fireworks."
Years later, Fiore was able to attach the idea to tangible phenomena. From 2001-02, she was an artist-in-residence in Roswell, N.M. One day, she and some other artist friends went to set off fireworks. One person dropped a lit blue smoke ball on the floor, and as Fiore looked over, she saw the residue from the firework's smoke create a perfect blue dotted line on the pavement.
Inspiration hit, and she immediately got paper and started experimenting with the fireworks.
"Often in life it's that one little something that happens," she said. "If you close your eyes and miss it, you miss it."
Fiore has been working with fireworks for a decade. Her artwork can be seen in the McIntire Department of Art's Ruffin Gallery as part of a show, "Touched by Virginia," which features work from artists connected to the University, including alumni and one University staff member taking classes in the department. One of Fiore's pieces – which William Bennett, a sculpture professor in the College and the exhibit's curator calls an example of "high drama" and "probably the most strikingly beautiful in the show" – is displayed on the third floor of the gallery. A video of Fiore making one of her pieces plays on the first floor.
On Saturday in the Ruffin hall sculpture work yard, Fiore demonstrated for about 20 people the first stage in creating her work, the initial burning of the paper. With the help of two assistants – all wore goggles and gas masks – Fiore set off small fireworks and smoke bombs on large sheets of paper, rolling them, pushing them, trapping them under different-sized containers and combing them into spiral designs with a rake contraption constructed from a broom handle.
Her helpers also assembled separate sheets of lines and circles made by trapping smoke bombs under tin cans and pushing them across the paper. Fiore will take these pieces back to her studio in New York City to cut out and piece together with more burnings and circles of plain white paper to create her finished product.
She described the intricate, full-body process of the first creation as a kind of dance with the fireworks.
"It's a collaboration of chaos and nature," she said. "My dance partner is really crazy. Always I have to bring my dance partner back to me, control it in some way, influence what comes out of process."
Fiore said she uses the medium of smoke because the challenges of it engage her and it works very well with who she is and what she wants to say. "I need to have a medium that is very chaotic to work with, because I find a lot of possibilities in chaotic nature," she said.
Bennett, who was the chief instructor and adviser for Fiore's fourth-year show – she also stayed on as an Aunspaugh Fifth-Year Fellow – said she has a long history of making art with unconventional means.
"She was a very exciting student to have around, always doing projects that make you scratch your head," he said.
During her time at U.Va., Fiore experimented with making art with her Subaru, filling her windshield wiper fluid reservoirs with paints and stains, mounting paper onto her windshield and spritzing them into exquisite paintings. She also made a piece of auditory art by filling latex bags with water, mounting them against a wall above metal buckets and making tiny punctures in the bags to allow water to drip musically into the buckets.
"She's been doing unconventional artworks from the beginning," Bennett said.
Fiore said that people like Bennett and the late Lydia Gasman, a longtime U.Va. art history professor and Picasso scholar who passed away in 2010, helped shape her as a person and were "a huge influence on me, allowing me to do and think whatever I wanted, supporting everything I ever dreamt up as undergrad. That was really important."
"There's really an intimacy that you can have within a small department like U.Va.," she said. "It was a great place for me to develop as a young artist, and it's made me who I am for sure."
The "Touched by Virginia" show runs through Oct. 22.