Our Town: Off Duty: fire artist Meli Markham

“It’s a very profound feeling: knowing that what I’m doing can kill me, but learning how to build a relationship with the fire, understand it and how it works. You have to respect it.”

–Meli Markham, firebreather and welding student

by Jessie Ammons
photo by Christer Berg

“A man named Phoenix taught me to breathe fire,” Meli Markham, 20, says, laughing at the irony. When the Cary native began her studies in welding at Wake Tech Community College two years ago, she “discovered this entire community of fire artists and flow artists and prop spinners.” After watching many friends practice fire manipulation, fire eating, and fire breathing, Markham felt ready to give it a go. The man named Phoenix gave her a few hours of safety training “and then handed me a torch.”

Since then, Markham has honed her favorite of the “fire arts”: fire eating and fire breathing, what she calls “the contact stuff.” She performs locally with Imagine Circus in Raleigh and Addled Muse Fire Theater in Durham, and hopes to perform as much as she’s able once she graduates. “Performance and art is where my heart is. The welding came from wanting to be able to make metal art, or to weld sculptures together, or enhance spaces for my performance groups.” Her plan is to take to the road for welding contract work, combining that travel with performance opportunities. “I’ll teach workshops, make art. But I’ll definitely always have a home base here (in Cary).”

While Markham won’t divulge the specifics of how fire breathing is done – “then people think they can just go try it, and you really need to be trained” – she says it’s actually quite safe when approached like any other highly trained athletic pursuit. “I have never been seriously injured,” she says, because safety precautions are so paramount. “I do lose a lot of hair though: eyelashes, arm hair. Nothing big.”

She’s found good company in the Triangle. “Fire arts is a huge thing all across the world that most people don’t know about. Raleigh is lucky enough to have a really great community.” Ultimately, it’s the perspective on life that the pursuit brings her that keeps Markham, well, fired up. “People always ask if fire arts scare me, and my answer is no. Not anymore. But it’s a healthy fear. It’s not scary for me anymore, but I take it seriously. The second it doesn’t slightly intimidate you is the second you should probably stop.”