Retired Las Vegas Fire & Rescue firefighter and artist Allan Albaitis is determined to test the expression, "a phoenix rises from the ashes. "
The Centennial Hills resident is the talent behind FireArt Inc., a 17-year-old business of fine-art portraits inspired by Albaitis’ firefighting career, and he’ll be the first to tell you, "It’s going down by the bow."
Albaitis’ work achieved moderate success in ebbs and flows. He created signature prints – sketched, scanned and digitally enhanced – based on real stories that became framed artwork, novelties, fire department badges, magazine covers, a Nevada license plate and beyond. They hang in fire departments, living rooms, offices, memorials and even in scenes of the FX network TV show "Rescue Me." His 6-foot mural "World Memorial" toured with a collection of memorabilia commemorating the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 .
Albaitis netted awards and accolades, notoriety and praise. He retired from civic duty in 2007 and hired a staff to keep FireArt smoldering.
Those were the ebbs, the good times.
"FireArt was very good to me," he said. "But you’ve heard the expression, ‘It was a blessing in disguise’? This was a curse in disguise."
On to the flows, the hard times.
Albaitis said he made missteps with his business. He plunged his nest egg, and later his retirement savings, into FireArt, borrowed money and relied on credit. He hesitated to create a piece following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 , dubbing profits from the tragedy "blood money." He bristled at social networking until recently.
He created thousands of lithographs of signed and numbered prints that went unsold.
Above all, his generous heart was larger than his profit margin, Albaitis said. He donated many pieces to auctions, charities, fire stations and fellow firefighters.
"I probably gave away more than I ever sold," he said.
Albaitis filed for bankruptcy under the FireArt corporation and became a sole proprietor.
"It doesn’t mean I’m giving up," he said.
His art and resolve have helped him weather several other personal trials, he said. The Michigan native is a self-confessed adrenaline junkie who served in the U.S. Army and dealt with alcoholism, loss and guilt. He became a Las Vegas Fire & Rescue firefighter and faced near-death experiences involving a collapsed building, back drafts, explosions and the raw emotion associated with life-and-death scenarios seen every day by fire responders.
Many of the hard times are detailed in the supplement material released with FireArt pieces.
Although FireArt Inc. is in financial peril, Albaitis is putting fresh work out there and staying busy. He has started creating personalized portraits of firefighters. He is on a personal campaign to assist Dyrk Burcie, the son of a Dallas Fire Department lieutenant and cancer patient. He is still collaborating with the Bradford Exchange, a novelty product retailer.
"I’m going down by the bow, but I figured I’d throw out some life preservers," he said. "I’ve got my head enough above water to take a breath."
Friend and former colleague Tim Szymanski has FireArt portraits in his home, gifts from Albaitis that he considers keepsakes, he said.
He included some choice FireArt work in the fire department history book he compiled.
" That’s how much all of us in the department thought about his work," he said. "He puts a lot of work into his work, and it shows. It’s absolutely excellent."
It’s department lore, Szymanski said, but a firefighter is rumored to have put a mural of an Albaitis portrait in his home.
The men have talked about how Albaitis’ hobby changed him and inspires him to move forward, Szymanski said.
"If you tell me he’s having problems with his finances, I have no doubt he’ll be able to straighten it out," he said. "He’s always figured it out in the past."
Albaitis often weaves intricate images into the smoke or flames of his firefighter portraits, and the details wow Szymanski, he said.
"You have to be a smart person to come up with ideas like that," he said. "He puts his heart and soul into this. He’ll figure it out."
Albaitis said he’s encouraged by testimonials from his art’s recipients and admirers. He displays his FireArt scrapbooks, portraits and mementoes as proudly as his firefighting recognitions.
"I see the value in what it can do," he said.
Albaitis continues to set business goals: perhaps create a coffee table book with his artwork and writings, he said.
Giving up isn’t an option, he added.
"Not as long as I have breath in my body," he said.
For more information, visit fireart.com.
Contact Centennial and North Las Vegas View reporter Maggie Lillis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 477-3839.