From Sparkler to Floating Island Fire – Mina’s Spark

Ever thought about what lights your fire? Mina Lebitz, a woman I met briefly last year at a weekend art/camping event called Figment Alpha, definitely has thought about what sparks her desires. When I met her last year, she was offering a workshop to create your own sparklers. Fast forward to this year, and she has built upon that adventure and learned so much more about pyrotechnics to create an effigy that looked like a mini floating version of Governor’s Island. In her adventures, she learned many lessons. She took chances. Made mistakes. Got messy!

Mina last year teaching people how to make their own sparklers.
The different creative shapes of the sparklers people made in Mina’s workshop at Figment Alpha 2018

“Science and art are hard, at least if you’re doing something interesting (and well).”

– Mina, on creating artful sparklers for a ‘wacky science adventure’ with her friend Mercury John.

Unfortunately, I had been late and missed the workshop to make my own sparkler. I may try it later, around a holiday like 4th of July. I found this “recipe” online, and it clearly spells out how to make them. Make sure to check your local laws first, to make sure they aren’t banned in your part of the country. This DIY project is not for cost -savings…making your own is more expensive. But you have the satisfaction of having created your own! “How to DIY Sparklers – Because You Can!”

Mina’s definition of Adventure

Mina hard at work pouring paraffin on the “grassy” part of the island. In her coat, she looks very scientific (reminding me of my favorite character, Ms. Frizzle of Magic School Bus!)

Q: What’s your definition of Adventure?

A: My top three goals for living are (1) Loving (2) Learning and (3) Adventure. For me, an adventure is doing something new or unfamiliar, something that takes you out of your comfort zone, requiring you to do something that stretches your imagination and/or abilities. An adventure takes you somewhere you’ve never been, but not necessarily physically.

This project was an adventure because it gave me an experience I’d never had before (being the lead artist on a major project involving several people), so this particular adventure took me somewhere internal – to a place of trust in myself, my team and my community – that I’d never felt so strongly in my entire life. I think you know when you’re about to embark on an adventure because you’ll feel a combination of excitement and fear. I suspect it’s not an adventure if there’s not at least a little fear. But then there is no courage without fear, and a true adventure requires courage. 

Adding knowledge to take the next step

Important reading for this adventure!

Q: What steps did you take to go from sparklers to the more advanced project of a pyrotechnic effigy?

A: I love chemistry and I love fire, so the combination of the two is a match made in heaven (I’m sorry if that was a groaner but I couldn’t resist the joke)! I bought the Chemistry of Pyrotechnics book for the sparkler making workshop. I had so much fun reading it, learning all the different reactions and interesting compounds, that I wanted to take it further. The chemistry of burning these chemicals is very complicated. Many ions, particularly the alkali and alkali earth metals (groups 1 and 2 on the periodic table), are colored when burned but the flame temperature must be just right for the effect. That was always the hard part of making the sparklers burn in a way that maximized the effect.

The makings for magical bonfires! (Do not try this at home!)

A lot of the compounds didn’t end up doing what they were supposed to do, or if they did, I wasn’t able to observe it. We used a LOT of magnesium and in retrospect, I think it washed out a lot of the color. My thought was that it would provide a white light background and provide a high temperature burn, but I didn’t do the math which was a pretty major oversight. 

This magnesium looks nothing like the supplement I take! Ha! Would not be a good mix-up for sure.

“Alphagy” the effigy at Figment Alpha

Mina had been asked to create the effigy by the team producing Alpha. She, along with a builder friend, had at first wanted to create a leafy sea dragon that would float and then burn on the pond. They wanted to include burnable elements beyond wood (such as paper mache, fabric, and cardboard) that would give it a more ‘biological’ feel. They also wanted to include pyrotechnic surprises instead of a bunch of fireworks. Since fireworks are illegal in New York, experimenting would have to happen down in Maryland where the event is held. When her partner in the dragon concept wound up not being able to participate, the team at Alpha asked her to lead a different group, with a different concept – a floating representation of where Figment NYC used to be held…Governor’s Island. Mina says “That’s when the adventure really began. I was thrilled and terrified, which confirmed that this was definitely something I should do.”

part of the effigy getting prepared for the bonfire. The little houses have magnesium inside, so I was told.
Magnesium in the little homes that will go on the floating barge island.
There was a great tree house as part of Figment. Ben Jones built this little one to honor it. When I saw it, I dreamt of someday having a tree house home…
The volunteers helping get the raft into the water. The effigy parts will be placed on it later.
Mina Lebitz supervising the launch of the raft for the floating effigy.
The effigy of the city of Governor’s Island was done in parts, and then placed on the floating raft to enhance the island feeling.
The floating representation of Governor’s Island (photo: David Katz)
All the magnesium, paraffin and other flammable structures made a big, hot bonfire! It was spectacular!
The white-hot of the magnesium overshadowed the colors of the other chemicals, instead of being a nice, white “background” to them.
Mina wading in to put out the effigy fire when it didn’t extinguish by itself as expected

Life Lessons to share

Q: What lessons would you like to share from this adventure?

A: A life lesson, not really for me, but for anyone reading this, is that for all the stress and hard work creating something can be, it is worth it. My friend Dan once said, “We don’t buy our fun, we make our fun”, and “Making things  together is one of the most intimate ways we can spend time together.” (I am imperfectly quoting him.) I think those two thoughts have become my mottos for living. This project was way over my head. It was definitely the most ambitious art project I’ve ever undertaken, and neither [my co-leader, George] nor I  had never attempted something this big. But I feel really good about it. For all its imperfections, we learned so much and had so much fun working together.

The biggest lesson I learned is this: Love gives you more courage than you can imagine.


I was very reluctant to take this project on but I very clearly feel the love of my friends, family and community, and that gave me the courage to go forward. I trusted that they had my back and that I would be supported the whole way through. I knew if I failed, they would respect me for trying (and they’d make fun of me for the rest of my life, but it would be hilarious).

Not only was I not disappointed, I was elated at the response from the community. When we pulled the platform closer to shore and saw that it was just going to keep burning, even though I am a poor swimmer and I am quite terrified of that pond, especially in the dark, the urge to do something about it was overwhelming. There was no way I could just stand there and watch it fall apart, irrevocably polluting the pond. The courage I felt to wade in there and put out the fire was stronger than any of the fear I felt, and the encouragement of those standing behind me further fueled me to keep taking action despite what at times felt like a futile effort. When Sasha jumped into the pond with me, my heart felt like it was going to explode! You never know who is going to be there for you when you need it most.

Spark your fire?

While you may not be a science teacher wanting to create art with pyrotechnics, many of the reasons for exploring what you enjoy and taking chances could lead to similar results – deepened friendships, life lessons and personal growth. Mina enjoyed the encouragement to explore her passions, step by step. What sparks your fire enough to find the courage to overcome the fear and go for it? Tell me in the comments!

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