Photographing pyrography

I’ve been trying to get good images of my “fire-drawings” but I’m finding it difficult. My digital SLR doesn’t do so well with the subtle differences between the pale color of the wall and the color of the paper; I’m losing detail in the burned sticks and the scorched edges of the lines. My usual settings for photographing paintings didn’t work well (aperture priority, F22, ISO  100, Adobe RGB color space, RAW file format, White Balance custom set to my lighting), and so far, neither does High Dynamic Range. I tried both with 45-degree raking lights and with indirect lights bounced off the ceiling. Suggestions welcome!


“Self-similarity” or “recursive” artwork

As we work our way west across Canada, heading home from Banff, I’ve been thinking a lot about artwork that uses some aspect of its content as part of its creation–pyrography to create pictures of burned forests, for example.

I also heard talks and saw examples at Banff where the resulting artifact, if any, is almost completely opaque to the viewer. Simon Starling, a winner of the UK’s Turner Prize, tore down a shed by a river in Germany, built a boat in the local style to float down the river to the museum where his show was located, and then reconstructed the shed as the exhibit. It’s clear this makes meaning for the artist — but what does it do for the local population? Who is the client for this work — the curator or the viewer?

Some artists contend the viewer is not needed to complete the work. Maybe so. But for myself, art isn’t “client-free”, even if it is internally driven.

Last day

Yesterday I did more work on Crown of Broken Branches. It was pleasurable after a month of tight work to do confident, loose, watercolor on traditional watercolor paper — “respecting the paint” as Tom Hoffman once said I did. I jury-rigged a way to weight the curling edges to a jumble of taped-together boards, since I did not have a board big enough. I decided I did not need to paint to the edges as I usually do, and I would leave the paper as it came off the roll — uneven, an imperfect rectangle — to reinforce the aesthetic liberation I was feeling.

Crown of Broken Branches, Dec15

50 x ~36. This one will get finished at home.

But after an exit interview, the afternoon opening of our group show (see December 15), an artist talk by sound artist Gary James Joynes, and dinner with the family and remaining artists, I was completely derailed.  I’m well and done, my mind is no longer focusing on the art, it’s turned its jangling neurons to logistics, travel, and the looming holidays I’ve managed to ignore up until now.

One of my colleagues here says she’s always grumpy when she gets home from residencies. I can hypothesize some of the causes: the breakup of your newest community of committed souls, travel itself, coming home to changes  (“honey I found a better place for the toaster”), packing/unpacking, wondering what you accomplished and if it will make any difference, calls for artists to write applications for, shows that need inventories and frames, website maintenance, housework and cooking and bills, all intruding on your opportunity to really focus as you have in residence…

Luckily I have Jonelle Johnson’s weekly watermedia group as my home community to which I return.

Group show

Today I worked on a final pyrography drawing and added it to the group show in the small gallery downstairs. Following Ila’s advice I left the flap of excess paper in the piece — now it’s an artist book ; – )

I’ve only really got one more work day left. At first I reached for a regular full watercolor sheet, but then I stopped. “What am I thinking?! This is my last opportunity to work big!” So I muscled a large piece of Arches watercolor paper off the roll. It fights back ; – ) but I devised a complicated set of weights and clips to hold it in place. The drawing of a burned, downed log receding into near space looks like a crucifixion. Maybe this is not such a bad metaphor.

Building a burned tree from paper

As time draws short, it seems ever-more important to keep experimenting while I have all this space. (Must be 5 times the size of my workspace at home!) I tweaked After the First Death a little, but spent most of the day on a paper construction I’m calling The Fire This Time. Alas, I don’t count it as a visual success, but I derive sufficient procedural and conceptual interest to try it again.  I want to contrast our idealized images of trees with the reality of burned ones; and of course, paper is made from trees — at least high-quality heavy paper like watercolor paper is.

I’m reminded of my friend Karen Rudd’s cedar stumps painstakingly constructed of corrugated cardboard.  I see a lot of “recursive” artwork around here — objects where the creation process recapitulates the meaning of the work in some way.

Burned at the Base

I decided to change the name of the second large paintings from the Stanley Glacier Trail. I called it Fire-Scarred Base before, but the alliteration of Burned at the Base seems simpler and clearer. I made a lot of progress over the last two days, and coming back to it fresh tomorrow should tell me if it’s done.

Friday was the last of the music residents’ concerts of the year and as always it was outstanding. I heard a visiting Celtic rock-and-roll band the next night and while it was enjoyable, it was a shock to realize what complex and sublime music I had been become habituated to hearing.

Most of the thematic residents left Friday or Saturday and others are beginning to depart in dribs and drabs. It’s becoming very quiet, but also more intimate.

Burned at the Base, Dec11

Perhaps too jewel-like for the subject matter, but I love those textures. 76 x 51 inches.


Today I learned from my biologist friend Wendy that some scientists hypothesize forests may be replaced by grasslands because “with global warming the fire-return cycle is becoming too short for forest regeneration,” at least in the Yellowstone area. I wonder if this will happen more quickly than we expect, like the polar ice melt? How should I best express this disturbing scenario in my burn-related artwork?

(For artwork they’d say practice here in Banff, a term I find both edifying and a little pretentious at the same time. I don’t compare what I do to law or medicine.  Yet I realize (especially from the artist talks I’ve been hearing here) that art with a majority conceptual process — which sometimes results in no ongoing artifact — requires a broader term.)

Open Studio afternoon

Today all the artists visited each others’ studios and  then were open to the public the rest of the afternoon. It was partial completion to watch people react to the work I’ve done (“the work is not complete without a viewer”).

I finished the burn-drawing from Vermillion Pass and presented it by creating side strips with grommets and burned stick supports. I’d like to try this one again without any shading, only lines. But many people seem to like it, including my colleague Carin Covin who said “don’t you dare cut this one up”.

And I began work on the next extra-large fire-scar close-up. I really like the idea of these two 76 x 51-inch paintings on half-round supports facing each other across an archway — or photographed outside, wrapped around an actual tree trunk.

Fire Drawing - Stanley Glacier Trail Dec 7

Fire Drawing from Stanley Glacier Trail (Dec 7)

After the First Death (Nov21)

After the First Death 76 x 51 in.

Fire Scarred Base Dec 7

Fire-scarred Base (Dec 7)





Today I learned about the Montreal Massacre of 1989, because at lunch a group of Visual Arts and Theatre residents, unannounced,  climbed on their chairs and read off the names of the 14 young female engineering students murdered at the Ecole Polytechnique. It seems a harrowing fact that so many countries experience this extraordinary kind of grief. The shocking thing, 22 years later, is that the “long gun registry” instituted after the event is being dismantled by the current government, so says the flyer my colleagues passed out.

I’m wearing the day’s symbolic white ribbon.