Metal artist and blacksmith Raymond Mathis stood on the sidelines last month as he watched the fire that he uses to create art become an enemy.
Instead of giving steel a taffy-like elasticity on the way to becoming sculpture, the flames consumed Mathis' studio and burned it to the ground.
Mathis, of Newtown, watched the fire trucks and the firemen all day. He popped two nitroglycerine tablets to make sure the stress didn't become too much.
"You keep thinking maybe they'll get it now. Maybe they'll get it now," said Mathis, 50. "And then your shop goes up."
Mathis lost upwards of $50,000 worth of equipment, tools, artwork and metal when his shop caught fire on April 13. The studio was part of a Point Pleasant store, storage and workshop complex, much of which was lost in the fire.
Fire officials say the blaze started as an electrical malfunction in a storage room behind the Trading Post of Bucks County gift shop.
With his studio gone, and with no insurance, Mathis isn't quite starting over from scratch, but close to it. Luckily for him, he had rented a much smaller storage area/workshop in the same complex, and it managed to escape the fire. Still, nearly 20 years of work burned with the fire.
He and his wife, Rosemary Tottoroto, a graphic artist, are working to reestablish Mathis' business, Tutto Metal Design, and buy equipment and find a new work space.
But they're not doing it alone. Many of the couple's friends in Bucks County's artist community have rallied around to hold fund-raisers and offer help.
A benefit music and silent auction event will be held today at Puck in Doylestown.
"I have my own studio where I do my own conservation, and I can't imagine," said Paul Gratz, of the Gratz Gallery and Conservation Studio
in New Hope. "You lose your work, then you're shut down and losing money every day until you can get back working again."
Gratz and his wife, Harriet, hosted a
Cuatro de Mayo
silent auction to benefit Mathis.
Painter Materese Roche has a goal of creating a painting a day and selling the works on eBay to raise money for the Rebuild Ray Fund, set up at the First National Bank of Newtown.
"I've sold six of the first seven," said Roche, of Doylestown, who also teaches art. "You just jump in and try to help."
Mathis plunged into the art profession after working as a farrier. He had grown up an animal lover in Northeast Philadelphia. One day, he woke up from a dream and told his parents he wanted to shoe horses.
"They thought, 'Where are you going to do that in Northeast Philadelphia?' " Mathis said.
Nevertheless, he pursued it. Mathis went to training school and traveled to Miami looking for work. He returned to Bucks County and became an apprentice to a master farrier.
While working for him, Mathis became interested in more artistic endeavors. He rented the studio in Point Pleasant in 1988. He studied metalworking in Germany for six months. By 1994, he had left horses and become a full-time craftsman.
On April 13, Mathis drove up to the studio on River Road to catch up on some work when he noticed fire coming out of the back of the Trading Post, he said. He told an employee of owner Ed Kolbe to call 911. Mathis then ran and got a fire extinguisher and tried to douse the flame, he said.
Within minutes, the flames shot higher and Mathis, who has had three heart attacks and triple-bypass surgery, ran to his studio to get out the tanks of flammable materials that he uses for welding and cutting.
He managed to drag out six containers, some client artwork and records. When he was safely across the street, he popped the nitroglycerine.
Fire crews from Pennsylvania and New Jersey fought the blaze, said Anthony Rhodunda, a state police fire marshal. At least half the complex was destroyed, causing an estimated $350,000 in losses, Rhodunda said.
The cause of the blaze is officially listed as undetermined, but the case is closed and no foul play is suspected, Rhodunda said.
Insurance was prohibitive, said Mathis, who cited the age of the building, its wooden construction, and its connection to at least five other buildings.
But he warned other artists to learn from what has happened to him and to research insurance options thoroughly, even when the cost seems out of reach.
"I never thought it would happen," Mathis said.
He already has returned to work, on a housing restoration.
Last Sunday, Mathis and his wife were the special guests at Trinity Episcopal Church of Solebury. Mathis has done metalwork for the church, and the congregation wanted to make a gesture of support after the fire.
The members offered the help nearly 10 years after a fire had destroyed the church's parish hall, kitchen and part of the sanctuary. The church later rebuilt.
"My wardens and I saw this as fitting as we remembered what we went through and the community support that we had at the time," said the Rev. Marshall Keith Shelly, the church's rector.
"It was a gift to us to have [Ray] with us, and as we experienced renewal in the wake of a fire, he expressed that to us as well."
A silent auction with live music, food and drink will be held to benefit Raymond Mathis' Tutto Metal Design from 4 to 7 p.m. today at Puck, Printers Alley, Doylestown. Music will be provided by James Coane and Daniel Manchester. Admission is free. To learn more, call 215-348-9000 or visit
Donations can be sent to the Rebuild Ray Fund, c/o First National Bank of Newtown, 40 S. State St., Newtown, Pa. 18940.