Artist Lights Up The Sky
By: Emily Zhang
In Greenwood, Mississippi, the Memphis-based artist Desmond Lewis, age 28, lit up the Saturday night sky with “cakes” – large bundles of fireworks connected with a fuse.
As a sculptor, Lewis makes works that are forged, carved, fabricated, and cast from industrial materials. “Bout that split tho”, created in 2021 from a block of pocked and striated concrete anchors. Another famous sculpture of Lewis’s work is a vertical cylinder of concrete enhanced with pieces of steel, called “America’s Forgotten”, created in 2017.
Lewis’s works, unlike works from other artists, which are “massaged to look pristine”, are mangled or on the edge of ruin. Though his sculptures might seem grim, they marked by some pops of color or a jaunty placement.
The summer of 2018 marked the beginning of Lewis’s experiments with pyrotechnics. That year, he attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture – a storied summer residency for emerging artists. While leading visual research to investigate the ways in which a explosion could be rendered sculpturally, Lewis realized that there was little difference between the flames than emerge from a firework and the ones that come from a burning car. “One’s socially acceptable,” Lewis says, “the other’s not.” To test his theory out, he lit his first firework in a large meadow at dusk from three small concrete columns. It was thrilling.
This plunged Lewis into a firework rabbithole . Lewis sought licensures in multiple states and got his federal Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms license which allowed him to purchase, transport, and shoot professional-grade fireworks to the public. “Part of what I like about fireworks,” he explains, “is that I get to be in the dark”.
Pyrotechnics are actually not novel in modern art, but Lewis’s displays stand out from opulent productions. Despite the point of view from most spectators, Lewis’s shows are meticulously timed. But for the onlookers, they don’t see any difference from the shows you see around July 4th.
Lewis performed his shows on July in order to make less rich communities (which can’t afford fireworks to give the city joy) feel equal and that they could participate in anything the richer cities could. Lewis displays his pieces outside rather than in a museum is because he felt like his works needed to be “free” – not contained inside a display case.
The Juneteenth festival in Greenwood featured Lewis’s display of his fireworks as its last event. The sky lit up with flashes and sparks of pink and green. When the show ended in five minutes, cheers could be heard from the crowd, and cars honked in pleasure. “Sensational,” says Kamron Daniels, age 24, another one of the organizers. It was a wonderful event for Greenwood, and Lewis hopes to do more of these displays later.