Pittsburghers will have the chance to kick off the Labor Day weekend by literally playing with fire. River of Steel’s annual Festival of Combustion will be taking place at the Carrie Furnace on Saturday, September 2, allowing the opportunity to watch and even participate in the making of iron and glass artworks that bridge the gap between technical skill and creative spirit.
LOCAL spoke with the Festival’s chief curator, Chris McGinnis, about this year’s activities and how important the events can be for attendees of all ages.
Q: What’s the history of the Festival?
The Festival of Combustion was founded in 2015 shortly before the official launch of Rivers of Steel Arts early the following year. It was inspired by similar festivals that have taken place in Eastern Europe during the early 2000s as well as larger events like Burning Man where heat and combustion play a key role in the event. But rather than duplicate the models from past events we wanted to gear this festival toward families and children by focusing on hands-on experiences and opportunities for attendees to create something themselves. We also wanted to highlight the location itself as an important part of the story so we decided to dial in on art making processes that require heat and showcase an iron pour at the center of the festival.
The Carrie Furnaces was originally a commercial iron blast furnace that could produce up to 1250 tons of iron each day during the height of production. What better venue could you ask for to host a Festival of Combustion?
Q: What are some of the programs you’re offering this year?
New this year we are featuring customized medallions forged with the festival logo by blacksmiths Glen Gardner and Artifact Metalworks. Also joining us will be the IUP Jewelry and Metals Society with pewter sand-casting workshops!
We will have live music throughout the day by Pittsburgh rockers The Seams as well as a range of sideshow demos in sword swallowing, fire breathing and more.
The Festival will also feature established favorites from previous years like molten metal pours, flameworking demonstrations with Pittsburgh Glass Center, welding with Mobile Sculpture Workshop and raku fire pottery from Millvale’s Ton Pottery.
Q: This is a family-friendly event, is that in the hope of teaching children about this city’s history?
Yes. Rivers of Steel is dedicated to preserving and interpreting [Pittsburgh’s] shared legacy and the Festival of Combustion helps introduce new and younger audiences to our city’s unique history. In addition to the range of art-making happening throughout the day, we also offer periodic tours of the site that take guests beyond the festival grounds and into the heart of the blast furnaces.
Q: What do you hope people take away from seeing these programs and workshops?
First of all we hope they make a unique piece of their own hot art while on site! We hope visitors of all ages will walk away with a greater appreciation for the hard work and creativity of those who lived and worked in the region. Of equal importance is that festival-goers leave excited about where they live and energized to help re-imagine the future of familiar places like the Carrie Furnaces.
We also hope that youngsters, after seeing a live welding or blacksmith demonstration, might be inspired to pursue metalworking as a career or creative practice. Places like the Carrie Furnaces were built by people with both technical know-how and creative vision. We hope the festival inspires visitors to think similarly.
Q: This festival is meant to inspire. Has it inspired you?
Absolutely. Every year I’m inspired by the incredible work ethic of our furnace crew who put on the iron pour. It’s hard not to walk away from the experience impressed.
The story of the Carrie Furnaces and events like Festival of Combustion are born of a legacy we all share as Pittsburghers. So perhaps I am most inspired by the many families and sponsors who continue to show up for this event and support the Rivers of Steel. Their dedication continues to demonstrate that what we do is important to the community and I’m ever grateful for the chance to develop programs that honor this legacy.