Meet Henrik Stubbe Teglbjaerg, the organizer of Phoenixville’s annual Firebird Festival and the construction manager for the 25-foot wooden phoenix that’s set ablaze to culminate the fest each year
• On building the bird: “I find it very exciting to be creative with my fellow human beings and I feel there’s a real thirst for it. People are excited to be engaged.”
• Playing with fire: “I feel we’ve been blessed with not having a disaster and we’re not planning on having one.”
If Henrik Stubbe Teglbjaerg had stayed in Denmark, he might have followed his dream to buy a farm and become a cheesemaker.
Instead, he spends three months out of every year making a 25-foot wooden phoenix that’s set on fire in a blaze of glory during Phoenixville’s annual Firebird Festival in December.
Living in the United States — and Phoenixville, in particular — can have that kind of effect on a person.
“In Europe, you have traditions of how you do things so, therefore, you stay in the norms of what you consider good behavior,” Stubbe Teglbjaerg, 65, said. “But here, there is a much bigger freedom, so if you come up with a crazy idea, people are really open to that.”
In 2004, Stubbe Teglbjaerg and five other Phoenixville residents had the crazy idea of creating the Firebird Festival and the accompanying phoenix bonfire to celebrate the Chester County borough’s mythical namesake and its burgeoning arts and culture scene. Much like the phoenix, a mythological bird which is consumed by fire and reborn out of its own ashes, Phoenixville was experiencing a renewal.
“When I moved here it was a depressed town, but then the Colonial Theater opened, four art galleries opened up, we got two coffee houses, and there was this rebirth,” Stubbe Teglbjaerg said. “The myth of the phoenix rising out of the ashes fit perfect, and I think that’s why this festival was so embraced by our town.”
Over time, other members of the founding group stepped away. Since 2012, Stubbe Teglbjaerg has been the lone organizer of the fest and the construction manager for the phoenix bonfire. Like those who assist him with building the bird and running the festival, he volunteers his time for free.
“It’s a lot of work but at the same time, it’s not even a question if I should do it or not,” he said. “It’s just a part of who I am.”
Born in Copenhagen, Stubbe Teglbjaerg worked at farms in Denmark and Switzerland that specialized in biodynamics, an alternative form of organic agriculture that views the entire farm as a living organism.
In 1989, Stubbe Teglbjaerg came to the States to take a job as a farmer at the biodynamic farm at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, a community of more than 100 adults with and without disabilities in Chester County.
When his time there came to an end, Stubbe Teglbjaerg moved just outside of Pottstown and got jobs as a gardener and as the caretaker of a trumpet museum and a horse farm.
In 2002, he moved to Phoenixville with a woman he was dating. As a woodworker and musician who can throat sing and play the singing bowls and didgeridoo, Stubbe Teglbjaerg quickly became involved in the borough’s arts scene. Within two years, he became a founding organizer of the Firebird Festival.
“The festival is really to celebrate the pride we have in our creativity and to show off our creativity with this bird and then set it on fire,” he said.
The festival started with just about 150 spectators and a bird small enough that Stubbe Teglbjaerg could jump safely off the top of its head. But as years passed, the wooden phoenix grew to 30 feet high, and the crowds swelled to more than 20,000 people when the festival was held downtown at Friendship Field.
Now in its 18th year and fourth location at Veterans Memorial Park — which isn’t visible from downtown — the festival draws crowds that typically range around 3,000 people. The borough has also capped the phoenix’s height at 25 feet as a safety precaution, Stubbe Teglbjaerg said.
This year, because of COVID-19 precautions and paperwork snafus on Stubbe Teglbjaerg’s end, the crowd size was limited to 1,000.
There’s no set date Stubbe Teglbjaerg starts planning for the festival, it just happens organically as people ask him about it throughout the year at the farmer’s market or coffeehouse. But one thing is certain, the last three months, the festival is “pretty much my life” he said.
The process starts with a design for the phoenix and a popsicle-stick model of the build, where a half-inch equates to one foot. Anyone can submit a design for the phoenix and this year’s — which had a rotating head with four faces and glowing eyes — was designed by Phoenixville resident Derek Wieneke, who met Stubbe Teglbjaerg years ago when he went to a phoenix build.
“There’s this crazy Danish guy out there doing carpentry and dancing all up on this thing and I was like ‘This is my thing! I’m crazy like this!’ ” Wieneke said. “It just felt like community, and that’s what we all strive for.”
Anyone can volunteer to help build the bird, which is constructed on site over several weekends from September through late November. The tools are powered by a solar panel on Stubbe Teglbjaerg’s 2000 Dodge Ram van, which he’s also outfitted with a tiny woodstove to give volunteers a place to warm up.
The wood for the build (about 10 trailer loads full of pallets) is donated by construction companies and community members.
“The wood just shows up, like Christmas,” Wieneke said.
Residents are also encouraged to create artworks to be affixed to the phoenix. This year, several people incorporated pieces of their homes or family heirlooms damaged by flooding during the remnants of Hurricane Ida.
One of Stubbe Teglbjaerg’s favorite parts of the festival is the 150 tiny clay birds that are placed inside of the phoenix and literally rise from the ashes of its pyre. Residents make and paint the small clay birds at Community Arts Phoenixville and the bonfire acts as a kiln. When the fire dies out, the birds are retrieved and returned to those who made them.
“It’s such a special moment when you unveil these little treasures out of the ashes and they’re all different,” Stubbe Teglbjaerg said.
It was a desire to keep those tiny birds alive that led to one of the most incredible shows of community support for the festival amid one of its greatest tragedies.
In 2014, vandals prematurely set fire to the phoenix. Stubbe Teglbjaerg got the call at 3 a.m. and went to the site, staring at it burn. His mind went to the clay birds within and he and a friend put out a call on Facebook for the community to bring pallets to the field.
“It was a miserable, rainy day and yet the whole town came and in three hours we rebuilt a new bird,” he said. “You really felt the endurance and strength of our community and what we’re capable of. It was like the whole village came and took Christmas back from the Grinch.”
At this year’s festival, which was set for Dec. 11 but rescheduled to the Dec. 18 due to high winds, there were fire breathers, fire dancers, a gladiator wielding flaming swords, and a man who ran around the phoenix with a set of wings which he’d lit ablaze.
There were dancers dressed as birds wearing glowing LED capes; a woman who rode around on a golf cart playing a gong; and a band that performed songs like “Firebird” (to the tune of Pitbull’s “Fireball”) and “The Bird is on Fire” (to the tune of Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three’s “The Roof Is on Fire”).
Four torchbearers set the bird ablaze, and within a half hour the phoenix was fully engulfed, with flames rising at least 25 feet above the structure itself.
Somewhere in the distance, as he has every year, Stubbe Teglbjaerg watched three months’ of his work go up in flames. And he was happy about it, because it’s never really been about building a phoenix to begin with. It’s about building a community.
“To me, the making of that sculpture, that’s where the magic is,” he said. “In my mind, we are all divine beings and it’s amazing what we can create together.”
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