Desmond Lewis: Sculpture and Pyrotechnician
By: Samuel Lin
Desmond Lewis is a sculptor in Memphis who makes sculptures that tell the story of African-American labor history. Lewis also brings fantastic, dazzling fireworks shows to poor communities in the South.
HIs sculptures reveal the untold, concealed and forgotten histories of African-American labor. His sculpture America’s Forgotten (2017), which stands on the campus of the University of Memphis, shows a cylindrical shaft of concrete with three chains attached. His works, including Bout that split tho (2021), often are disfigured, and use unfinished materials. This contrasts with many other sculptures, which often used polished, smooth materials, and have a finished look.
To Lewis, the smooth materials of other sculptures cover up the diverse stories of African-American labor histories, creating a too-pristine feeling.
Besides being a sculptor, Lewis is a pyrotechnician, a professional who works with fireworks. It started in the summer of 2018, when Lewis began experimenting with ways to model explosions using sculptures at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.
Later, Lewis got training and a display operator’s license after working part-time at a fireworks company. In addition, Lewis received a license which allows him to buy, move, and, most importantly, detonate professional-grade fireworks.
Lewis set up an impressive firework show for a Juneteenth celebration in Greenwood, Mississippi. After taking a plane to Nashville, Tennessee, Lewis drove a whooping 15 hours to get 300 pounds of fireworks to Whittington Park in Greenwood.
Greenwood has a historically-important past: It was the site of protests and voter registration struggles during the Civil Rights Movement. Now, it is a town where more than 30 percent of residents live in poverty, and more than 70 percent of residents identify as Black.
At the Greenwood Juneteenth celebration, participants had fun playing games like kickball, singing songs, dancing, and watching Lewis’ fireworks show. The display filled the sky with an array of explosions, dazzling the crowds. When one man, who was not a participant in the Juneteenth festival, walked too close to the fireworks, Lewis had to use himself as a human shield to prevent the detonations from hurting the man.
After the show ended, one of the festival’s organizers, Kamron Daniels, said one word to describe the fireworks: “sensational.”
The Mayor of Greenwood, Carolyn McAdams, said the festival is “a wonderful event for Greenwood. It was a well-attended event, safe, and catered toward people enjoying life with friends and family.”
Lewis plans to hold more firework shows to help the community going forward.