Blair Brown: Nova Scotia and Beyond
Peter Drewett: New Directions
Julia Surba: From Siberia to Berlin
Cheryl Dow's Woodburning Celebration Drawing Near
The dramatic portrait above is a window into the world of Canadian pyrographic artist Blair Brown who, since 1994, has been retired from his service as an Industrial Arts teacher with the Canadian Government. During his colorful career, his postings included three years in Southern and East Africa and four years in Kingston, Jamaica, W.I.
60 Years in Pyrography
Born in Selma, Nova Scotia, Canada on the 24th of May,
1936, Blair remembers that he was introduced to
woodburning at about 11 or 12 years of age when he saw
an example of it done by a family friend. He still
remembers how impressed he was when his father was
presented that beautiful woodburning of a deer (taken
from a Field and Stream magazine).
by Blair Brown, late 1940's
Pyrography with watercolor
on Pine plaque,
5.5 in. by 7.5 in.
Image courtesy of the artist
Since returning to his native province of Nova Scotia
where he resides in Barrington Passage, Blair has been
focusing a lot on capturing in photography the
familiar surroundings of his life there, many of which
are disappearing quickly. His own photographs are his
main source of inspiration for his pyrography work.
"When I retired," Blair says, "I started woodburning seriously—taking my own pictures. A Maritimer's love of the sea heavily influenced my subjects, and I have done dozens of the fishing boats 'Cape Islanders' for fishermen. Lobster pots are among my favourite themes as they have nearly all disappeared in lieu of the newer wire traps. No romance or character in plastic covered wire, now is there?"
Boat at Wharf with
"The old wharves are fast disappearing too," he continues, "going the way of the fish plants and a way of life. Even they have a certain character and history. Thankfully I have taken many pictures over the years—enough to see my life through!"
For the last couple of years, Blair has found a niche for selling his work at several provincial gun shows held annually. He has done a couple of dozen of these plaques of antique pistols like the 1932 Smith & Wesson called the "Lemon Squeezer" shown here above and in a detail below.
The Lemon Squeezer,
"My interest in the art form never waned,"
Blair says, "and I just kept burning and learning
as I went, such things as types and characteristics of
woods, reaction of heat to metal, care of tips,
finishes (which I'm still working on!)."
Tools. Blair works with the Dremel Hot Tool. However, he notes that he does 99.9 percent of his work with only one tip—the wedge tip, which he modifies.
Woods. He works most on Poplar plywood and even Poplar split logs, as well as Birch plywood. He also uses Maple and Birch plaques.
Finishes. Blair's thoughts on finishes are like those, he believes, of most pyro artists—that they are "the bane of [his] years." At present, he has been working with furniture oil called Teak & Tung, which he says is quite thin and easily penetrates the wood. He usually uses only a couple of applications. He notes that it does have a fairly strong "aroma" but says that "it gradually diminishes with a little time."
Display at Pictou
Upon returning from the show in Pictou, Blair sent the
picture above of his booth display and wrote the
"Just returned from the
Pictou gun show and thought you might be interested in
how the pyrography was received. Everything was quite
positive, but the medium is still very unknown to
nearly everyone. I believe that if I hadn't been
demonstrating, I would never make people understand
how it was done.
During his pyrography career, Blair has exhibited and
sold work in countries in East Africa, especially in
Tanzania, the United States, and in Canada in the
provinces of Quebec, Ontario, and Nova Scotia.
There was a great amount of interest shown and a lot of people stopped by and watched and chatted. But—my!—you do get tired of the reception to pyrography. I even had a guy stop and ask how the word 'pyrography' was pronounced! The small plaques were thought to have been stamped, and, for this reason not much interest was shown in those."
An organizer of an event for Women in the Outdoors approached Blair at the show he did in Pictou to ask if he would do a piece as a donation for his group, which will meet in Nova Scotia on June 16th this year. They are sponsored by the National Wild Turkey Federation in the United States. Blair sees this opportunity, he says, as "more exposure for the medium."
Just as Blair feels his maritimer's love of the sea
influences much of the subject matter of both his
photographic and pyrographic works, he also fully
believes there is an inborn wanderlust in maritimers
(borne out in stories of his parents and ancestors)
that accounts for the decision that he and his wife
Shirley made back in 1965 to take advantage of the
Canadian Government's offer to send them abroad
through their External Aid program, as it was known
then, so Blair could teach overseas. "We left
Quebec," Blair said, "with three children
ages 2, 4 and 6, and never gave it a second thought.
We wanted to see the world and back in the 60's it was
very possible to do just that, safely, for families
like us. I had just built our first home in
Lennoxville, Quebec, and then to up and sell out; quit
my teaching job; and just take off—it sometimes
seems a bit unreal."
As a teacher, Blair and his family were able to live and travel in various parts of the world. He says that he had always continued to burn "by fits and starts over the years," but "got into it seriously in Africa," where he found great subject matter and had more time to pursue his pyrography, as well.
He was even selling his work there in Africa, while
striving to perfect his technique. They lived for a
year in Lesotho (a small landlocked country surrounded
by the country of South Africa); traveled up to Greece
afterwards while awaiting word of his next posting;
then visited Botswana (which was then known as
Bechuanaland) for a lengthy period; and lived for two
years in Moshi, Tanzania. They also took a few
vacations on the east coast to Mombassa (now Mombasa
in Kenya, it is a port city on the Indian Ocean that
is a center of the coastal tourism industry) and
Malindi (120 kilometers northeast of Mombasa and also
on the Indian Ocean at the mouth of the Galana River).
He did some great portraits and a lot of game animals during those times, and notes that the game animals sold very well. He had just sold a burning of animals to a customer in Arusha (northern Tanzania's safari capital) and gotten a commission for four more when a misfortune occurred: the porcelain element he was using with his old Unger tool back then dropped and broke. He had no way to easily or quickly get a replacement part, and his pyrography came to an abrupt halt.
From Africa to the Caribbean. After the Tanzania posting, the family moved back to Canada where Blair worked briefly in Quebec before getting a new posting that was to last four years on the beautiful West Indies island of Jamaica in the Caribbean, where he found the inspiration for that wonderful opening portrait of the Jamaican market lady.
Link to the Blair Brown Salon in the E-Museum of Pyrographic Art to see additional examples of Blair's pyrography, including works from his time in Africa.
For his past several shows, Blair used the above panel for the purpose of demonstrating at his booth. The pyrography was done after one of his own photographic compositions of some wooden buoys that "were just lying as you see them."
Shirley and Blair
Blair has been working on setting up a home studio and
gallery—a place where he can work and also hang
his works and where he hopes he will soon be included
in a studio tour event when he can open it to the
public for a day. Following are a couple of closing
quotes from Blair Brown, whose pyrography has indeed
been a window into his fascinating life and world:
"Over the years I had to develop my photography skills, as I work from my own photographs. I have had to 'suffer' the slings and arrows of critics to this art form. I have been refused acceptance to juried panels as my work, to them, seemed too much like a photograph! There have been times when I questioned my sanity in continuing with pyrography, and I truly appreciate the opportunity to relate to other fellow pyrogists!"
"On my desk is a quote attributed to Helen Keller: 'Life is a daring adventure, or nothing.' Guess that says it all!"
2007, Kathleen M. Garvey Menéndez, all rights reserved.