Q&A with Paul Olesniewicz

The Artist - Paul "Oly" Olesniewicz

In the long run people don’t know where they end up in life. When we are 18 young and beautiful the world is open to interpretation. Along the road that path narrows down where complications arise and things get harder along the way. Paul Olesniewicz’s path is no different that most people. He started out as a young hopeful thinking he was going to become a pharmacist, served his country, became a firefighter, retired and became an artisan.

Lauren Burgoyne: How many years did you serve as a firefighter?

Paul Olesniewicz: 32 years. When I got out of the service in 72 I worked 8 months with the forest service in Flagstaff and then I worked down in Mesa Arizona and worked.

In 1972 I worked for the Forest Service for about 8 months, it’s a seasonal type of position. I think I started in about 73 or 74, I moved down to Mesa at Williams Air Force Base- spent three years at Williams Air Force Base working as a civilian firefighter. Then I moved to Colorado Springs and worked for a year with the Air Force Academy as a firefighter. I decided to go back to school so I moved back down to Flagstaff Arizona- after I finished that up in 1978 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree I moved to Tucson, Arizona in 1979 and joined the Tucson Fire Department. I stayed with the Tucson Fire Department for 27 years.

That’s quite a colorful history that you’ve had. There are so many children who grow up and have that dream of becoming a firefighter. Did you know this was your destiny or did it happen accidentally?

I actually never thought of ever being a firefighter. I never had any designs on being a firefighter. I got out of the service and needed a job and I got on with the Forest Service, then it just happened there was an opening. I was married and my father-in- law told me about an opening in Mesa with the Air Force so I tried out for it and I made it. When I moved down to Tucson I was working construction and again I didn’t really think too much about the fire department. We figured we would stay a year and move but things were- construction was going pretty well and all. Homes were reasonable. I looked around and they had some openings for the Tucson Fire Department and I put in for it. It’s been more of a “good luck” type of a thing. I had no designs on being a fireman ever.

That being said, while you were serving as a firefighter did you feel “this is where I should be? “Although this was never my plan?”

Paul: Yeah, the fire department is a great job. It’s one of the places you feel you actually make an impact in the community in helping people out and you get paid for it too! Every day is different. You have some things you do everyday type of things but every call is different. Every instance is different. You can have anything from a broken pipe in a house to a child drowning. Every day is different. I don’t really know what I would have done if I hadn’t been a firefighter because most jobs are fairly stagnant as far as what you do. You do the same thing day after day after day but with the fire department it’s different. You can sit down with a group of firefighters and it’s going to be the oddest group of stories that things have happened to them in their career that I think you can find anywhere.

You started 9-11 Sculpture in 1994. (early nineties) Was that when you first started sculpting in general or sculpting the firefighter pieces?

I started college at NAU (which was Arizona Teachers’ College in 1965). I was looking at going into being a pharmacist. I worked in high school at a lot of different jobs to make money. The pharmacist was a really great guy. He said if I wanted to become a pharmacist he would put me through school as far as pharmacy school. When I was going to NAU I was taking some pre-med courses. In 67’ I needed to fill out some general courses. I always kind of liked metal working so I thought I would take a sculpture course. At that time there was a lot of money available to the universities. NAU went from Arizona Teachers’ College in 66 a year after I started. They were building all kinds of new buildings on campus. They gave the professors in the art department sort of carte blanche to design what they would like for their facility. At the time they had an excellent sculpture prof, he designed a sculpture area and foundry that could pour about 600 pounds of bronze, which is phenomenal. You don’t see commercial foundries doing that kind of thing. He had all this set up. It was really a great set up. I enjoyed that. It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed doing it. There’s a lot of twists and turns in your life. It’s hard to make a living as a sculpture you have to have a niche or somewhere. I was doing some pieces after I got out of the service. When I went back to school and graduated in ’78. I went back to the fire department I started doing some firemen pieces. But it wasn’t until a few years later that I started to do more and more of that type of artwork.

The Brotherhood of Firefighters

Inside that firehouse where you spent so many years. I know if those walls could talk there would be plenty of stories too. Can you share with what that brotherhood is to be a firefighter- it’s truly different than any other profession. You’re living in close quarters, you intimately know their lives, you’re cooking with each other. The term “brotherhood” I don’t really know a better term for it. You’re on the inside what can you tell me about what it is to be a part of that.

I think it’s one of the only (jobs) other than the military that you’re there 24 hours with folks and you have a “hurry up and wait.” One second you might be eating lunch and the next you’re out on calls and that goes on through the day and the night. A lot of people 15 years ago- Firehouse Magazine puts out stats on stuff- in the top 10 busiest fire stations in the nation – we had two stations, which people have no idea about. Not all of those are fire calls, 80 percent are medical. Twenty years ago- we needed quite a few new fire stations in town. The load was pretty good. You’re constantly going in and out of the station with a group of people. It’s a team effort. Everyone who is there, the captain is in charge and he’ll make the final decision but everyone puts in their two cents about what could be done or should be done to do the best we can for the public that we’re serving. You sleep there. You eat there. It’s always funny people think you stay in your whole career. A lot of times if you’re in one station you’re on what is called “swing” you may go to a number of stations. You may go to as many as 2-3 stations in one day. So in the middle of the night- and you have a call you jump out of bed you have to have enough presence to know if I roll one way I’m going to roll into a wall. If I roll another way I’m going to fall out of the bed. Where am I? Which fire station am I in? While you’re trying to figure out, “Where am I going?” I don’t think there’s other than possibly the military the idea of teamwork and new situations constantly that you’re trying to use your experience and the experience of your co-workers to try and aim for a positive outcome.

Do you think of the comrades that you work as brothers more so than co-workers?

Yeah you get some good friendships; do stuff off the job with these people. It’s like any job you have people you like very well, there can be frictions because you’re there 24 hours with people. For the most part people ask if I miss the job? No I move on personally that’s the way I feel. There’s a lot of really good people. Most of them are family oriented; it’s a good group to be with. Most of them I have the availability of visiting old friends. It was a great job, great career.

It’s Hard to Advertise

Yes, not to date you Paul but back then there wasn’t Facebook or social media there wasn’t the web or Youtube to showcase your work.

The first thing was AOL with the dial-up. I actually had a page that I did with the dial-up. AOL gave you a little bit of HTML that they gave you a small page then you could put a picture in. So I’ve been working with that for years. Unfortunately, I never got very good at that end of it. Haha

When everything came together-you could get on the web- you could have web presence and that’s what really helped me with what I was doing with the fireman sculptures.

Then I was doing small sculptures and I got a call from a little town in Kentucky and they asked if I could do a large piece (6 foot tall one) because they had lost someone in their community. I said yes, I could do that and they asked how much. And then they said how about a 5 foot one, a 4 foot one, a 3 foot one, we kept on getting smaller and smaller. I said well I’ve got a small piece that would work nice. So they had me do did two small pieces as part of their memorial So that’s when I thought I should do some memorial pieces because there’s a need for it. There’s a lot of communities that lose people. Just like this one, their church in town burned down to the ground they decided they needed fire department. They started a fire department of volunteers. They bought and engine and ran it out of a local garage. As things progressed they finally built the fire station. Then at one of the fires they lost one of their community members one of the firemen. They were looking for a statue to commemorate it. Most of the fire people are very conservative they’re not looking for abstract or non-objective piece. So that’s when I felt like I could actually do something to help out the community type of healing process.

What is the process of how to go about inquiring a bronze statute?

What normally happens is a community loses a firefighter. They want to do a memorial of some sort the chief will hand it off to some people who really don’t have any understanding of what’s involved with that. They don’t know what to do so they’ll google it. My name will come up and so I just try to emphasize “You know I was a firefighter” if you need any information or questions just call me, whether they pick one of my sculptures or not just so I can provide a service that way. I have a certain expertise with what works outdoors, what lasts over time.

I know you do them on a smaller scale for individuals, if you wanted to honor someone in their family? Do you have a story that comes to mind about one of those people who had a powerful reaction to one of those?

I got a call from a lady in Canada and they were doing a firefighter stair climb to raise money for cancer. She called me and she said she would like to have something to give for a trophy. I said I have a couple trophies that would work well for that, but I said I doubt seriously you would want to spend that much money every year giving them out as trophies, so I suggested making a roving trophy that you could add names to (kind of like a Stanley Cup sort of thing.) So I’ve sold two statues that way to people who aren’t firefighters but who are actually raising money for the local fire departments for cancer and different things.

It was kind of fun too because seeing a picture of the statute if that’s what she wanted if that’s what she wanted. She happened to have a girlfriend here in town who came out and she happened to fall in love with the statue and told her girlfriend in Canada. So they were happy with it and built a nice pedestal for it and then each year the name of the department that wins. I just got an email for her we’re going to put a little advertisement out for their stair climb in case anyone locally or in the states might want to go to it.

9-11 I am very curious to know after learning your story Paul about that moment in time, how did that play into your work at all? I’m curious about that point in our history and you being a sculpture and these being your pieces.

I had the name well before the 9/11 tragedy. I originally had the name The Alchemist was the name of my page, the idea that someone who changes lead into gold or changes their into gold. That’s what I try to do is take metals, objects and turn them into artwork. Unfortunately no one seemed to know what an alchemist was.

I need something to relate to the fire department. When you think of 9-11 you think of the fire department or the police department or emergency, so I just thought I’ll have my name be 9-11 sculpture. At that time there was nothing to do with the 9-11 tragedy.

When that happened, everyone asks “Well do you remember where you were?” I was on my way to work and I remember thinking when something had crashed into the Trade Center, you kind of think of the old plane crashed into the Empire State building years ago. Maybe it was bad weather or something. Then as that story unfolded you know that if there’s any sort of fire or anything like that-there’s going to be firefighters going up into that building. I didn’t have any clue how many there would be. The way that all unfolded, a terrible terrible tragedy.

The Foundry…

You can’t talk about what I do without talking about the foundry. We spent the whole day at the foundry. It’s a team effort basically. I do the statues in clay. I do the life size work ups in clay. When that’s done I take it to the foundry and the foundry makes the mold of it (multi-piece) mold sometimes 5 or 6 molds, separate molds of different parts of the piece. The piece has to be cut up into pieces so it can be molded. From the mold they make waxes, from the waxes they cover it with ceramic shell material. They melt the wax out they pour the metal where the wax was. They remove the shell, weld it back together, grind it, polish it and put a layer of color on it. So there’s a huge amount of work that’s done at the foundry. I think any artist who does bronze work. I even had my own foundry for a few years. When you get into large pieces you have to have a foundry that you work with. They really have an excellent foundry here in town. The people, I’ve worked with for years, a really wonderful group of artists. Each one of them are artists themselves. The people who work in the foundries are not just labor; a lot of them have their art degrees. They’re starving artists and like to work with metal. Especially, for a sculptor the foundry is an important thing. The quality of your work is governed by those people and their skills.

Lauren Burgoyne is a storyteller whose calling card is creating out of the box media that ignites emotion, thought and action. She is excited to bring more than a decade worth of experience in the fields of television, journalism and public relations to her clients. In addition to her work at Injected Media she is the executive producer and creative director of her own production company (Greater Purpose Productions). Lauren’s credits include being the TV host and co-executive producer of the popular Phoenix television series, Destination Arizona. Her other roles include being the co-executive producer for the online series RG9-TV for New York Jets kicker, Robbie Gould.

While working as TV news reporter and anchor in cities across the U.S. Lauren discovered her passion: documenting stories about real-life superheroes overcoming adversity in the most unimaginable ways. Lauren founded The Greater Purpose Project (non-profit) as an outlet to document these stories. Lauren’s inspiration came while working as a reporter at KOLD in Tucson, Arizona after meeting Patrick Taylor, a former Drexel Heights and Golder Ranch firefighter battling Multiple Sclerosis and training for the Paralympics. Now The Greater Purpose Project has evolved into a positive news outlet, documentary and GPP School Heroes Tour.

Julian Ybarra
Julian Ybarra is a journalist and media expert from Tucson, Arizona.
Recommended Posts