CHIPPEWA FALLS — It started as a school project and turned into an original artistic medium.
Chippewa Falls artist Alexandria Mooney Jones was working toward her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the University of Missouri in Columbia in 2007. One class project involved creating a war-related book. Per the theme, Mooney Jones was attempting to make it look burned by charring the edges.
At the time, she was at a Fourth of July party at her then-home in Kansas City. Feeling frustrated after various burning techniques failed or took too long, her friend suggested she use a firework.
The spark was born.
“It’s probably my favorite thing I ever did in college because it was so mind-blowing,” Mooney Jones said. “I noticed some of the fireworks were leaving colors ... so I started to think, ‘what would happen if I put this on canvas?’ “
She started experimenting. Nine years later, she has favorite brands of fireworks and understands what types work best to create certain patterns and effects. Still, a lot of her work is at the mercy of her preferred medium.
“Fireworks are temperamental. Sometimes I light one off thinking it’s going to be orange and it’s purple,” Mooney Jones said. “Sometimes I have a vision and it doesn’t work as planned. But sometimes, it’s even better than I hoped for. It’s a challenging medium but I really enjoy it.”
Mooney Jones will have her work on display alongside her friend and fellow artist LeAnn Nelson for an exhibit titled “Fire and Ice,” which runs Wednesday through March 28 at the Heyde Center for the Arts, 3 S. High St. Nelson will be displaying her pottery, which she described as a blend of natural, wood-toned pieces. There will be an artist reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the arts center.
Nelson calls Mooney Jones a “mad scientist” because her work is so unique. She said people often think Mooney Jones adds paint or pigment to the canvas, but in reality it is all done by the fireworks themselves.
That is also what struck Deb Johnson, the Heyde Center’s executive director, when she saw Mooney Jones’ work for the first time.
“I liked her out-of-the-box thinking, creating something that who would have ever thought of using that?” Johnson said. “She stumbled on a gem and has found success with it.”
The two artists’ works are extremely different — Nelson’s is more functional while Mooney Jones’ is more decorative — but the two came together in an old-fashioned way: by being neighbors.
Nelson owns Pine Harbor Studio, 7157 185th St., in Chippewa Falls. She started the studio in 2016 as a way to sell some of her work that had been piling up in boxes. When Mooney Jones moved into the neighborhood, they got to talking, and Nelson suggested she sell her work in Pine Harbor Studio.
As it turns out, they live in a creative neighborhood.
“After Alex, all of these other artists came to me and asked to put stuff in my shop,” Nelson said. “It turned into a neighborhood party where everybody just came and visited each other.”
Nelson now sells work by several local artists, including herself and Mooney Jones, and participates in various art shows throughout the year. She has held art classes in the past and is in the process of planning more.
Nelson spent much of her early years making jewelry, but several years ago a friend taught a pottery-making class, and she was hooked.
“I am a hands-on person, and I have that need to just dig into things,” she said. “I love to see things progress and then finished.”
She is still creating her own pieces, but hopes the studio becomes a place to promote local artists such as Mooney Jones and others who are doing new and creative things.
Mooney Jones, who grew up in Eau Claire before leaving for school, said she couldn’t believe her luck in meeting Nelson so quickly after returning to the Chippewa Valley.
“My mom’s favorite thing to teach was ceramics, so that was my major in college,” she said. “To move here and find out (Nelson) has this ceramics studio here ... it was like it was fate.”
Mooney Jones credits her artistic upbringing to her mother.
“My mom was an art teacher so she taught me to see unusual things with artistic potential, things maybe most people wouldn’t,” she said.
She thinks that’s why she was so taken by the fireworks technique, which she stumbled on completely by accident and made her own.
The process is somewhat daunting. First, her work can only be completed in the warmer months because it must be done outside.
Second, she has to put on a respirator mask to protect herself from the fumes and possible flames — it looks a little odd to the neighbors.
Sometimes she shoots off one firework and the piece is done; others take four or five fireworks.
But no matter how each piece turns out, she said it’s worth it.
“I learn things every single time I do a piece,” she said. “I’m always looking for ways to create different effects.”
Her favorite part is that it is entirely her own.
“It’s not like I was taught by someone else,” Mooney Jones said. “I feel like there’s a lot more ownership to that.”
Are there other people in the world blowing up fireworks in the name of art?
Mooney Jones isn’t sure. She’s done a lot of research on the subject and so far has only found one woman from New York who does something similar.
She said she can see resemblances in their techniques, but thinks the woman’s are more geometric, whereas hers are “organic.”
“It is interesting to see how we both came to the same conclusions about some of the techniques,” she said. “I’d love to meet her some day.”
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