Paddle Pyrography: A Marriage of Fire and Water

Whenever I say the word pyrography, the first question I get is “what is it?” Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, this type of art involves creation through fire. Pyrography, from the Greek ‘drawing with fire,’ is achieved by burning images onto a variety of surfaces, although it is often called woodburning because wood is the most common canvas. The process uses a tool with a hot metal tip that looks at lot like a soldering iron. I first learned about this technique from my grandfather. He was a folk-art carver, and I was always inspired by a visit to his workshop, a little red barn on his country farm. Wood is the perfect canvas for images inspired by the diversity and grandeur of nature and wildlife from Canada and around the world. I use my own photographs of animals as inspiration for pieces that speak to the beauty, majesty, humanity, and souls of all creatures, great and small, that enrich and sustain our world.

Images from the natural world are easily born from wood; fur, feathers, and scales can be created using the engraving of the burn and its warm sepia tones. This beautiful drawing technique allows you to combine line, colour, and texture to create any image from the natural world or your imagination. Although pyrography has been practiced since ancient times, it became increasingly popular with ladies in the Victorian period for decorating all manner of household objects. Once seen merely as a craft, pyrography is being increasingly recognized as a fine art form.

Pyrography works very well on paddles made from almost any type of wood, but those with very little grain really showcase the burn. Sometimes, as in the case of the “Canoe Spirits” paddle, a defect in the wood can be concealed with a clever design (here I covered up a split with the horizon of the landscape). This paddle, which is on display at the Canadian Canoe Museum in the Living Traditions Gallery, brings together forms and design elements that speak to the Canadian experience, including animals such as the wolf, turtle, and owl, the Canadian wilderness, and Native American designs. Similar imagery is also found on the canoe paddle that was donated to the Beaver Club Gala in 2013 (pictured below).

I was also honoured to complete a paddle that was presented as a gift to Curve Lake First Nation to commemorate Trent University’s 50th Anniversary (pictured above).

Whether I’m working on some lettering or a simple loon, burning these paddles reminds me of being at the cottage, and when I smell the rich and sweet scent of burning wood, I really feel like I’m back around the campfire. To me, the final piece pictured below, “Conversations with Nature,” epitomizes this art form: it represents the perfect symbiosis between plants, animals, and human creativity.

See more of my work at the Canoe Museum on Sundays from Noon to Five and online at Fine Art America.


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