Through Fire, Columbus Artist Julia Hamilton Adds Chaos and Texture to her Artwork

Julia Hamilton’s artistic toolkit includes alcohol and fire.

Richard Ades
Julia Hamilton

From Michelangelo to Georgia O’Keefe to Banksy, artists throughout history have sometimes destroyed their own works. Yet when Julia Hamilton lights her drawings on fire, it is not an act of destruction, but of creation.

Why set art on fire if not to destroy it? “It creates texture, and it adds some chaos to the piece,” Hamilton explains. “I previously was doing some really, really tight line drawings, and for me it’s kind of freeing to embrace the chaos a little bit.”

A collection of her drawings—created with ink made from alcohol and then set on fire—is scheduled to appear on the gallery display wall at Worthington’s Highline Coffee Co. this October. Hamilton says she actually worked with alcohol ink for 10 or 15 years before she ever thought of adding flames to the process. “Then I saw people lighting their alcohol inks on fire,” the artist recalls. “And it’s like, ‘Oh, that looks like fun!’”

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Hamilton’s first fired-up works were 6-by-6-inch pieces like the ones she’ll show at Highline. She later tried adapting the same process to a bigger piece—3 feet by 3 feet—and immediately realized she needed to take a more cautious approach. “It’s kind of scary to see something that large on fire with such big flames,” she says. As a result, in addition to working outdoors and keeping a fire extinguisher on hand, she now divides her larger pieces into sections and ignites only one area at a time.

Julia Hamilton uses alcohol-based paints to create her artwork

Highline owner Christie Bruffy says the coffee shop began showing art soon after it opened in October 2015. Since January of this year, the task of filling its gallery wall has shifted to curator Rebecca Burdock, an artist in her own right, who first became acquainted with Hamilton’s work when both were featured in an Ohio Art League exhibition several years ago. However, it wasn’t until she invited Hamilton to show at Highline that she learned about her unorthodox technique.

“Her pieces look so polished and so intricate that to know that it starts with a fire and such chaos is fascinating,” Burdock says.

Fire isn’t the only thing that sets Hamilton’s art apart. She also has synesthesia, a neurological condition that causes her to associate specific colors or shapes with such things as letters, numbers, months, years or music. In fact, she sometimes sets out to create works inspired by certain songs. She knows she’s been successful in capturing a tune’s essence when “every time I look at that painting, that song pops in my head.”

Whatever inspires her work, the artist stresses that not all of it involves fire. For example, she isn’t using it on a 9-foot-wide triptych she recently began creating to commemorate victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, fire has become a favorite technique for her, and it will be featured in each of the 32 drawings in her show at Highline.

“I think it will be fascinating,” says Burdock. “I can’t wait to see it.”

Artwork by Julia Hamilton will be on display through Oct. 31 at Highline Coffee Co., 693 High St., Worthington, 614-992-2899 or highlinecoffeeco.com.

This story is from the September 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.