Pyrography: Folk Art

by Kathleen Menendez

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Folk or Naive Art
springs spontaneously from the creative human spirit
without reliance on or benefit from exposure to higher learning or apprenticeship.
It is the art form of the common folk,
often those isolated from outside influence.
It is a natural expression for which wood, leather, bone, horn, and gourds
combined with fire
are often the natural media folks turn to
as an outlet for their expression
and an enhancement to their surroundings.

Howard Finster, termed an American original,
is the quintessential folk artist--and a man with a mission.

Clock with Space for Photograph or Painting
Decorated With Pyrography by Howard Finster

I quite by chance ran onto a book about Howard Finster by J. F. Turner some years ago. I was delighted to see so many wonderful examples of pyrography in his unique work, and was intrigued by this fascinating folk character.

In the back of J. F. Turner's book is a bibliography of the sort one might expect to find as reference--with one difference: The bibliographic and reference material on Howard Finster is enormous!

When I had the honor to speak to this world-famous artist recently, he recounted with obvious pleasure all the people who have come to visit his Paradise Garden, people from as far away as New Zealand and Japan. The octagenarian, relaxing in his Paradise Garden the day of our visit, was recovering nicely from recent surgery. He still likes to work, he says, but admits he is slowing up and mostly does smaller works now.

Kitchen Cabinets Decorated in Pyrographed Motif

Pyrography by Howard Finster

Prolific Artist

Howard Finster's life is a colorful account of a simple, self-reliant man with a spontaneous imagination. He is not only inventive and ingenious but blessed as well with self confidence and an incredible amount of energy. His sense of duty is ever apparent, and his spirituality pervades every aspect of his life and work. He works relentlessly and joyously.

Woodburning, it seems, is the one art form that Howard has worked in since the 1960s, when he made clocks and frames. That was even before his vision in 1976, when, at the age of sixty, he felt a divine inspiration to do sacred art. Then he began to work in many media, including pyrography, which remains an important part of his sacred folk art. Since that time, Howard Finster has been signing and numbering his pieces, which now total over 40,800 numbered works of art!

Rev. Howard Finster

Paradise Garden

Howard's most famous work of sacred art is his Paradise Garden, which also predates his vision. It is a folk art garden in the state of Georgia that he designed as a source of inspiration and spiritual renovation. Not only is the garden itself an ingenious work of folk art, but it is full of Howard Finster art work, large and small, and visited by large numbers of delighted tourists from all over. He still personally receives visitors there each Sunday afternoon.

Tools and Art Materials

Howard Finster's body of work utilizes, it seems, anything and everything when it comes to materials. As we have seen, it even includes a garden! One crowd-pleaser he made for his garden was an enormous cement shoe, which he reclined on for a picture shown in the Turner book. The garden itself was carved out of a swamp, and the myriad materials he employs for his artwork are to a great extent scraps and discarded parts, or found objects. The original sculptural gateway to Paradise Garden was fashioned from old bicycle parts from his bicycle repair business. It was his own statement marking the beginning of his new vocation and his departure from the old, the point when he dedicated himself to sacred art work.

For his frame strips, he fashions designs in metal with router bits, and then heats the bit with a blowtorch to immediately afterwards brand the design onto the wood molding strip. He has to reheat in this fashion each time he wants to repeat the motif. For the line work in his paintings, he uses a simple soldering-iron type electric woodburning set.

Molding Strips Decorated in Pyrography for Use as Frames

Pyrography by Howard Finster

After 1976, when at age sixty he started painting with enamels on wood, masonite, glass, mirrors, and cardboard, he was framing his artwork in pyrographed wood and frequently incorporating pyrography in his enamel paintings on wood. He likewise combined pyrography with other materials like glitter and glass on his wood tower-like sculptures. A folk artist in every sense of the word, he draws inspiration from any material he finds at hand and sets to work.

Career and Recognition

Howard Finster's formal education ended with the sixth grade. By age sixteen, he had taken up preaching, and despite earning his living in many ways--from carpentry, cabinetmaking, upholstering, bicycle repair (21 trades in all)--preaching was and is always at the core of his existence. He was fired from a job at a mill once for not being willing to work on Sundays because of his preaching. The resourceful and resilient Howard Finster turned adversity into advantage when, before long, he was doing better working on his own.

Delta Painting
Reverend Howard Finster (b. 1916)
Summerville, Georgia; 1983
Enamel paint on wood panel, wood frame molding decorated in pyrography 28 5/8 x 45 1/8"
Museum of American Folk Art, gift of Elizabeth Ross Johnson, 1985.35.33

His first and foremost motivation has always been to bring the word of God to the people. It started with his preaching, Paradise Garden, the World's Folk Art Church he built there, and finally his sacred folk art work--his latest calling to which he has been dedicated wholeheartedly since his vision in 1976.

Howard Finster is undoubtedly the most famous and most documented of any American folk artist. His art work even ended up on album covers for the Talking Heads and R.E.M. The U.S. Post Office honored him by showing his work on a postage stamp. Examples of his work can be found in private collections and museums around the world. Despite all of this recognition, my interview with him in Paradise Garden was his first ever about his work in pyrography.

Next Issue: "Pyrography by Mixo Sydenham of Australia and a Report on the Australian Pyrographic Art Movement"

Last Issue: "Pyrography: Decorative Art",

A look at pyrography combined with color in decorative art techniques in a great variety of styles.


A collaborative effort is under way for both the collection of pyrography as well as a center where pyrographic artists can sell their work and exchange ideas.

If you would like to contribute (in scanned photographic form) your own, an antique, or someone else's favorite pyrographic work worthy of being displayed as part of the permanent e-collection in the illustrious e-halls of the E-Museum of Pyrographic Art, and if you have other pieces you would like to submit for sale (by way of a display in scanned photographic form) in the charming Pyro Cafe a la International, housing the prestigious Gallery of Pyrographic Art, please let me know of your interest in an e-mail and keep watching this column for more details as we establish a place and guidelines for the world's first E-museum and E-gallery of pyrographic art.

--Kathleen Menendez

Of Interest:

Howard Finster Man of Visions, The Life and Work of a Self-Taught Artist, by J. F. Turner, published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Ltd., Toronto. Distributed by Random House, Inc., New York, 1989.

This is a wonderful book. If you enjoy a wide variety of art work, you will enjoy the work and story of this colorful artist. The simple photographs I was able to obtain from Beverly Finster, Howard's daughter, for use in the little article presented here cannot begin to do his work justice. If you are interested in following the scope of pyrography and Rev. Finster's unique and charming work, J. F. Turner's book, which has many examples of pyrography exquisitely illustrated, is one you will want to add to your collection.

Coca-Cola Bottle
Enamel on plastic, by Howard Finster

on loan from The Coca-Cola Company.

Howard Finster has been incorporating images and legends about the Coca-Cola bottle into his art since the 1970s. His latest three-dimensional work was created as the signature piece for the Coca-Cola Olympic Salute to Folk Art, an international exhibition staged in conjunction with the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. The new bottle, which stands eight feet tall, has been on view at the High Museum of Art concurrent with the exhibition "Howard Finster: Visions from Paradise Garden."


Website with Concise Story of Howard Finster's Life and Sacred Art, with Bibliography: This website is about ten pages. It is an interesting and certainly worthwhile site, which will give you a good description of Howard Finster as well as some interesting critiques of his body of work. It does have good examples of the pyrocarved frames that so enhance Howard Finster's work, which you can see from the fourth page to the sixth or seventh. There are photos of the artist himself and some good examples of his enamel painting on wood and masonite. I was disappointed that none of the fascinating pyrography paintings on wood and wood tower sculptures shown in J. F. Turner's book appeared here--another reason why you should not pass up any opportunity to find a copy of the book.

Another excellent site is the Website Tour Virtually, Howard

Photos of Howard Finster and his art work. No pyrography.

General interest, not specifically Howard Finster: Artisans Folk art, outsider art, antiques,and Americana. A gallery of the unique and unusual. PLUS host to several select, related sites of artists, dealers, and others. They claim to occasionally show pyrographic art when something very special comes along.

A nice site to view various folk artists and their work (not pyrography, though), including work by Michael Finster, Howard's grandson.

And finally, for the more tenacious readers, a very good essay on the Rev. Howard Finster by Tom Patterson.

Some humor from woodcarver Tom Perigrin:

The President's Commission on Pyrography came up with horrifying conclusions:

Children as young as 8 years old can get books on Pyrography!
Some scouting troops teach pyrography!
Pyrography often leads to a burning desire!
Pyrography often leads to smoking!
Pyrography leaves an indelible impression which lasts far into the future
Many woodbutchers have been involved with pyrography!

Pyrography--can we afford it?


The Author

Pyrographer Kathleen M. Garvey Menendez learned her pyrography techniques in Guatemala. Her sister, Artist Sharon H. Garvey later joined her there to form their company Pyrographics, and collaborate on a pyrography project designed to promote this art form in the United States with the help of the Navarro Pyrocarver,which is the pyrographic tool Kathleen represents. At present, she resides in Falls Church, Virginia. In recent months, she has been dedicated to researching pyrography in all its facets with the hope of organizing pyrographers around the world for their mutual benefit and that of the art form.