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SCAD prof shocks and awes with his explosive art

Fourth of July fireworks might seem tame to Matt Stromberg.

The Savannah College of Art and Design professor of foundation studies and sculpture uses rocket fuel, explosives, pyrotechnics, propellants and munitions to create earth-shattering art. These energetic materials are used to manipulate metal, wood and paper -- using destruction to create art.

Stromberg’s creations include sculpted metal panels. He’s also used a submachine gun to create pigment-infused solid rocket-fuel paint that is literally shot into stone.

“I think it stems from a long-term interest in energetic materials,” Stromberg says. “Recently, with the birth of my daughter, my wife and I were thinking about what we are going to teach her. I want to encourage her to seek out things in life she finds interesting.

“I’ve always liked energetic materials,” he says. “I think the risk-taking is a big part of it, which is probably a key element of being an artist.”

Stromberg first began experimenting with energetic materials last year. It’s not something for the faint of heart. “I would say it’s very dangerous,” Stromberg says.

Special licensing is required to handle some of the materials Stromberg uses. That can get expensive, but a SCAD Presidential Fellowship for Faculty Development is helping with those costs.

It’s also providing funds for research and safety training with Explosives Educational Services Inc. in Texas. “Lately, I’ve been watching hours of safety films,” Stromberg says. “Doing this makes you really focus on safety. It’s all about concentration, education. I follow the safety protocols.”

In July, Stromberg will conduct research at testing facilities owned by Accurate Energetic Systems, LLC in McEwen, Tenn. The company, which manufactures explosive compositions and specialty products, has a variety of testing areas with trained personnel and safety managers available at all times.

The creation of explosive art can’t be done in a studio. “I have a couple of sites I use,” Stromberg says. “For more dangerous work, I use acreage in Effingham County that’s owned by a colleague.

“He has full permission from his neighbors,” Stromberg says. “Everything I do is completely legal.”

Yes, it’s noisy. “But only for a moment,” Stromberg says.

The processes used in creating this type of art are as important as the finished pieces. Someone watching Stromberg might assume that his artwork is produced randomly, but that’s isn’t the case.

“I have an idea of what I want to do,” Stromberg says. “I spend a lot of time trying to complete that.”

But there are surprises. “A lot of times, the event will lead in a different direction.” Stromberg says. “The material tells me what it wants to do. I think it’s all one continuous learning process.”

It’s not hard to find some energetic materials. “Everything I use may be found at a grocery store,” Stromberg says.

These days, Stromberg is spending most of his time doing research and development. “I’m learning about the properties of the materials,” he says.

“A lot of material comes through federal or state licensing,” Stromberg says. “For the submachine-gun art, I spent a year paying federal fees in order to purchase the materials.”

At times, Stromberg must get permission from the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to do a project. “No hazardous waste can be associated with my work,” he says.

While Stromberg’s methods are unusual, he insists his art is not that much different from drawing, painting or sculpting. “All art involves a certain amount of investigation and research, research, research,” he says. “It’s liberating, like a lot of art is.

“I think it’s really a fancy way of doing what every artist does,” Stromberg says. “The result is the same as if I grabbed a chunk of charcoal and drew on paper I was going to detonate.”

Ideas come from many sources. “I was talking with a fellow professor, a stone carver,” Stromberg says. “I was watching him work with a pneumatic chisel, which quickly moves material from a large block.

“I wondered if the neighbors were upset about the sounds,” he says. “We talked about our interest in shooting, and I wondered if I could actually carve with a submachine gun.

“I found that the concept of using a submachine gun was dynamic and fascinating to the imagination,” Stromberg says. “It’s a nice idea to be able to find a way to be creative and clear up misconceptions.”

Stromberg uses rocket fuel to create a paste with pigments that can be shot out of the submachine gun. Exotic, yes, but it incorporates the same elements as oil paints. “It’s applied in solid chunks,” he says.

Because Stromberg is so careful as he works, he hasn’t even had a close call. “I think the materials can be dangerous, but so far I’ve been lucky,” he says. “I hope to keep it that way.”

Stromberg plans to keep doing even more training and research. “I’ll be stepping up the magnitude of the explosives,” he says. “There are so many different types of energetic materials. There is always something else to research and try.”

For a while, Stromberg kept his work private, especially from his students. “In the last year, I started letting it out,” he says. “My YouTube site went from a dozen hits to a few hundred.”

Stromberg’s wife, Shea, is supportive. “She’s happy I’m excited about it, that it gives me a lot of pleasure,” he says. “But at times, she’s probably quietly terrified.”

Their daughter, Porter Rose, better known as “Poppy,” is 17 months old. “I will encourage her to seek out anything that interests her,” Stromberg says. “I don’t think people should shy away from things that interest them because of unpopular connotations.”

In November, Stromberg will show his work at the Hall Street Gallery. Those who have already viewed it are impressed.

“I haven’t heard any negative comments,” Stromberg says. “I think people are fascinated by the materials. I usually get a look of awe and shock.”

Stromberg isn’t the only artist to work with energetic materials who’s lived to tell the tale. Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who’s based in New York, draws with gunpowder and creates explosions “events.” Roman Signer of Switzerland uses explosives to create “action sculptures” that self-destruct..

“There are a few artists out there who are working with energetic materials,” Stromberg says. “I don’t know of any who are working with this many materials, though.

“There’s a lot of room out there for people who do this work,” he says. “Competition helps drive creativity. But I don’t recommend anyone trying to do something with energetic materials unless they’ve had safety training and have covered all the legal aspects.”

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Linda Sickler

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