The inside of Otok Ben-Hvar’s house contains dozens of stained glass lampshades, mismatched furniture, framed news articles, beer paraphernalia, an antique cannonball and more.
The Elfers resident is 75, and he's lived several lifetimes of experience. He has paratrooped for the Army, danced at Juliard and been Santa Claus for children across the globe.
The life he is living now is that of a patriotic performance artist- a painter who does his art with firecrackers.
“Since I was a child, I always wanted to do art with firecrackers,” Ben-Hvar said.
Ben-Hvar uses firecrackers for most of his artwork, which usually involves patriotic themes, including the American flag, 4th of July, 9/11.
He squirts paint from a syringe onto his canvas and then tries to direct where the firecracker fires the paint. He holds a metal cover over it to avoid burns and excessive paint splattering.
One of his more recent works of art, still in progress, is a firecracker painting that symbolizes the lives of his deceased father and sister. Their cremated ashes and bone fragments are scattered in with the paint.
“Get rid of that urn,” Ben-Hvar said. “Who wants to look at a box? I want it to serve life. My art serves life.”
“I’ve looked at the average and the normal and said ‘That’s not what I want it to do,'" Ben-Hvar said. "I didn’t want to do just landscapes and portraits."
Ben-Hvar has overcome obstacles. He was born without a palette and went to a school for the disabled for eight years. At the age of 19, he began using a mouth plate with obturator that allowed him to begin speaking.
He’s faced death in numerous countries from numerous causes, including heart attacks and prostate cancer.
On September 11, 2011, when the nation was remembering the tragedy of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center 10 years ago, Ben-Hvar suffered his own crisis.
“When I saw the planes hit the tower, I had a massive heart attack,” Ben-Hvar said.
He woke up in the hospital the next morning and since then, he said, only 23 percent of his heart has functioned properly.
But he kept going.
His many near-death experiences in recent years though had given him some thoughts. As a veteran, he’d receive an internment flag at his funeral. Ben-Hvar didn’t want to wait until he died to get that flag.
“I said I’d like to have mine while I’m still alive,” he said. “It’s my flag. I don’t know who you’re going to give it to when I die and what they’ll do with it.”
Ben-Hvar went to the VA. He went to his Congressman. He went to the President.
“No, no, no, no, no, they said,” Ben-Hvar said.
Finally, a kind woman at the VA finally gave in and gave Ben-Hvar his flag.
Earlier, he had written to the governor of every state in the United States, every U.S. commonwealth and territory and the Mayor of D.C. and requested a pound of native soil, just in case he decided to be buried overseas.
“If I was buried overseas, I wanted to be buried in American soil,” Ben-Hvar said.
Eventually, he changed his mind and decided he needed to do something constructive and artistic with the 55 pounds of soil.
“How could I ever think about being buried overseas?” Ben-Hvar said. “I took a bit from each sample and planted American’s First National Tree.”
The goal was to plant the tree on the White House lawn. To call the president's attention to this goal, Ben-Hvar said, he lived in a telephone booth for 30 days, leading to numerous television and newspaper interviews. The tree is currently planted in Dover, New Hampshire.
"Since I'm often in need of leaves and stems from "America's First National Tree" to create additional artwork I may not continue seeking to plant that tree on the White House lawn," Ben-Hvar said. "I'm thinking of planting it at the Statue of Liberty where the tree has visited and been photographed. I'm also intending to create a painting from the tree leaves and stems for French President Sarkozy to thank the French people for giving us the Statue of Liberty."
Ben-Hvar still has dozens of pounds of soil left. What should he do with it? he asked himself.
He began incorporating it into his artwork, along with the firecrackers, and still has some left over today. One of his major projects with the soil involved his internment flag.
Ben-Hvar took a pinch of soil from each sample and put it in a tiny glass vial along with a grain of rice with the corresponding state’s name written on it. Each vial was sewn on to the corresponding star on the flag.
On the stripes, thousands of glass vials, one for each of the victims of 9/11 were sewn to the flag with the names of the victims written on grains of rice inside them. This flag has been flown over every state capitol except Hawaii. Ben-Hvar’s still working on getting there.
“I’d like to fly the flag over New Port Richey City Hall,” Ben-Hvar said. “Why not? I’ve flown it over almost every state.”
This past September 11, he unfurled his internment flag at Sim’s Park in New Port Richey so that he could share with others the love he feels for his country.
“When you pick it up, you’re holding all of American in your hands,” Ben-Hvar said. “I’ve been to more than 80 countries in the world, and I’ve seen how they live, and there is no place in the world like America.”
Ben-Hvar's currently finishing up his dissertation, which is an artist statement and his life story, for Goddard College in Vermont, where he has been taking online classes. When he’s done, he can graduate with his Masters in Fine Arts.
Always the performance artist, Ben-Hvar's graduation will be spent inside a birdcage in a bathtub.