Issue #6

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Pyrogravure Colorée

The Art of Sophia Albu Ionita

by Kathleen Menéndez

The Scale is Large. The Style--Flamboyant!

Harpsichord Lid

Pyrogravure Colorée
(Pyroengraving with Color)
by Sophia Albu Ionita

Mural pyroengraved on a harpsichord lid

The artist's gift to her son Oliver
Mural hangs above Oliver's own harpsichord

Photograph by the artist

Sophia Albu Ionita had only "flirted with pyrogravure and tapestry" by the time she left her native Romania. She graduated there from the University of Drama and Cinematography, Ion Luca Caragiale, in Bucharest, and became well known as an actress. After a few years in that profession, she left for America with, as she describes it, "a longish interlude in Paris," where she taught Drama in a private school, Cours Maupré.

In Paris, in search of an artistic expression other than acting and with so much of the world's finest tapestry around her, Sophia was once more inspired to try her hand at that. Since she didn't have a loom, she made a large needle tapestry, which she called "Wings' Movement," and was successful in exhibiting at both the Salon Comparaison at Les Halles and the Hotel Commodore in Paris.

Then one day, in a big craft store in Paris, Rougier et Plé, she found a pyroengraving tool--appareil de pyrogravure--and took up her pyrogravure in earnest. On her own, she decided to add color and started selling her work.

When she got to America, Sophia got her master's degree in French at Middlebury College, and is presently teaching French plus Speech and Drama at a private high school (St. Joseph of The Palisades) in West New York, New Jersey.

Harpsichord Lid, detail
by Sophia Albu Ionita

Pyrogravure colorée
(Pyroengraving with color)

Photograph by the artist

Sophia especially asked that the French words "Pyrogravure Colorée" be used to refer to her work. She feels that this terminology not only best describes her technique but is the one by which her work is known. In English, "pyroengraving" is the most appropriate word for her highly textured work.

In the harpsichord lid, shown in the two pictures above, Sophia has included many, many elements of her life and her art. The harpsichord lid is its own metaphor for music as well as a medium for her colorful collage of pyroengraved autobiographical images and pyroengraved inscriptions, including many symbols for both music and poetry, both integral parts of her life and her family's. Birds as symbols and birds as motifs are found throughout Sophia's body of work, an example of which is "Birds as Proof of God" (not shown), her interpretation of Pascal's words. You will likewise see the influence of Sophia's love for tapestry in her rich, textured work, and you will find there, too, tributes to Bach and Proust. Music is another great love of hers, an essential component of her existence. She thinks a lot about heaven, and meeting up there one day with some of the world's finest composers is part of how she pictures (her) heaven will be.

Triple Self-Portrait
by Sophia Albu Ionita

Pyrogravure colorée sur Tableau à Bois
(Pyroengraving with color on wood panel)

Photograph by the artist

Triple Self-Portrait is a very strong piece and shows the complexity of Sophia's art. Her work is a tapestry of repeated symbols and patterns in an intense assortment of colors. It also brings to mind Picasso, who liked to look at different aspects and angles of a single face simultaneously. Sophia uses this technique to explore the different facets of a person in her portraits. Here she is expressing herself in her three "personas" (roles) or three periods of her life.

It appears she thinks of eyes as a mirror of the soul, since she emphasizes them so much. Even in the patterns, there are many eye-like symbols. It seems plausible considering the artist's origins that some may be there to protect against the evil eye or as a talisman to ward off evil.

The usual distinction between foreground and background is not present in Sophia's work. All of the elements of the central figure and surrounding symbols and patterns are together--intertwined, interrelated, and inseparable--and many elements seem to pulsate, alternately suggesting foreground and background in relation to one another. Furthermore, it is not always clear which is the central figure, since one may melt into two or even three, as in this case. These two ambiguities create a startling immediacy and a striking vibrancy in Sophia's work.

Oliver and Farren
by Sophia Albu Ionita

Pyrogravure colorée sur bois
(Pyroengraving with color on wood)

Photograph by the artist

Above is a double portrait where two profiles make up one face. Sophia attributes the inspiration for this design to the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes. To briefly summarize a lighthearted account attributed to Aristophanes in one of Plato's dialogues Symposium, (in which Aristophanes was not intending to give the true origin of man so much as an insight into the nature of love): in the beginning people were almost round--with two faces back and front (four eyes, two noses, etc.) and four arms and four legs. These mortals were so strong that the gods were afraid of them and Zeus and Apollo cut them into two pieces, vertically. Since then, we are halves, ever searching with great longing for our other half.

Sophia's fascination with this ancient myth and the concept it engenders ("moreoever, with a little truth in it," she says) is the motivation behind her double portraits where she unites the faces and/or the bodies of two people so that they will have found their other half.

>From there, she takes the concept further with imagery exploring visually concepts (of necessity, touched on very briefly here) put forth by Rimbaud ("Je est un autre" I am another) and by Montaigne, especially in his third book, chapter ten, where he talks about how people wear masks to play their roles in life and how some can maintain and find their "self" underneath the mask at all times, but how others live life as actors confusing costume with skin.

The lateral pattern on the double portrait above is a sort of harlequin quilt; in this piece you can observe how Sophia employs color in movement, in place of perspective, to achieve dimension. She prefers to leave reproduction of any kind to the realm of photography and works instead in two dimensions with images and colors she finds striking and personally motivating ("....avec des images et des couleurs qui se bousculent dans ma tête" is how she describes it in French).

by Sophia Albu Ionita

Pyrogravure colorée sur bois
(Pyroengraving with color on wood)

Photograph by the artist

Sophia reveals that this particularly fantastical portrait piece with 'fruity' features is really about her "demons," done with a touch of humor and her own distinct flare (there's another good "pyro" word for Sophia's work!)

The French Pyroengraving Tool--L'Appareil de Pyrogravure

Sophia likes her work "fast and furious." Her French tool gets quite a workout. She admits to breaking "hundreds of points" with this flamboyant style of hers, but she likes it that way. (Why not? After all, "flamboyant" has the same roots as "flaming"--from the Latin. And what better style for the art of "pyr"--from the Greek for "fire")?

Sophia generally works on large wood panels of very white wood. Sometimes, though, it is the object itself, rather than a particular wood, which is the deciding factor. We have already seen the harpsichord lid, which is a departure from her panels (tableaux).

A lacquer finish intensifies and enhances the colors and the wood grain, while protecting the art from light and environment.

The Door, The Angel
by Sophia Albu Ionita

Pyrogravure colorée
sur un tableau à bois
(Pyroengraving with color on wood panel)

Photograph by the artist

The Metaphor of Doors

Shown above is a pyroengraved wood panel employing a door as a metaphor. The two strong images juxtaposed are probably incompatible in terms of composition, but they are so complementary in theme and meaning that the artist, like this writer, couldn't give up one or the other--the beautiful angel keeper of the door and the inviting yet elusive door itself.

In the wood panel above, the artist has placed a door in her composition. Shown below you will see how she presents the door-metaphor in still another way.

L'Annonce Faite à Marie
The Annunciation

by Sophia Albu Ionita

Pyrogravure colorée sur une porte à bois
(Pyroengraving with color on a wood door)

Religious Imagery, Door as Metaphor

Photograph by the artist

Sophia loves pyroengraving doors--first, for the sheer scale of it. At the same time, she explores the door as a metaphor for "No Exit" ("Sans Issue") or maybe as a forbidden or inaccessible entrance, or perhaps as the gateway to heaven. All the while she entertains the ambiguity of the door as a possible means or source of escape--escape from oneself, or from a suffocating place, or from life itself (and full circle to the gateway to heaven....).

The stunning pyrogravure colorée above makes use of a door for its metaphor while simultaneously--and paradoxically--projecting the feeling of a stained glass window. This luxurious work--replete with symbols and pyroinscribed music--is Sophia's modern interpretation of the Annunciation, a centuries old and beloved religious theme for artists. This monumental piece speaks much of Sophia's own spirituality (intimately linked to her love of music) and her rich Eastern European religious heritage. It also reflects her admitted influence from mediaeval illuminations and icons as well as her love of tapestries.


The Cross
by Sophia Albu Ionita

Pyroengraved and Inscribed
with a Poem by Eric Boudet

Pyrogravure Coloree
sur Bois
(Pyroengraving with Color on Wood)

Photograph by the artist

Poet Eric Boudet

Above is another piece of many by Sophia that bear pyroengraved inscription. Sophia generally pyroinscribes in Latin, French, or Middle English. Her Parisian friend, modern poet Eric Boudet, aware that Sophia often employs this element of inscription in her pyrogravure colorée, decided to write poetry especially for her work.

In order for Eric to write a poem, Sophia first provides him a rendering of her design. When he has spent enough time contemplating the respective work, he writes the poem especially for it. In this sense, the final work of art is a collaborative effort of artist and poet. Following is the poem by Eric Boudet that is inscribed in pyrogravure following the circles around the bird in the center of the cruciform above (the English translation provided by the poet himself is to the right of his original French):

En trois pas sur l'eau du Monde
Tracer les cercles de l'onde
où l'oiseau chante la cible
au coeur touché. Irascible
la croix en quartiers coupa
le plan de choses que pas
un regard n'unira sauf
l'oeil qui ne se voudra sauf
In three steps on the World's water
To draw the wave's circles
where the bird sings the mark
and its hit heart. Irascible
the cross has in quarters cut
the plan of the things that
no look will ever join but
the eye ready not to be safe

Door to Heaven
by Sophia Albu Ionita

Pyrogravure colorée sur une porte à bois
Pyroengraving and color on wood door

Photograph by the artist

Sophia's Career in Art

Sophia started selling her pyrogravure colorée right away in Paris, yet does not feel she would have the same response in America, where, she says, this art form is almost unknown and has little acceptance. In Europe, however, where she says people are familiar with pyrogravure, it is readily recognized and highly regarded.

Sophia has done five pyrogravures colorées on doors. One of them, "The Door to Heaven," shown above, was selected by a curator at the Smithsonian to be shown at the Three Rivers Art Festival in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has exhibited her artwork in museums, cafés, and galleries in the United States, France, and Canada.

Self Portrait
by Sophia Albu Ionita

Pyrogravure colorée sur bois
(Pyroengraving with color on wood)

Photograph by the artist

Although she does not make her living from her pyrogravure colorée, Sophia Albu Ionita by no means thinks of her pyrogravure as a mere "hobby." She most definitely considers herself a serious artist, because, although she is not much interested in selling art, she is very much interested in making art. As she explains, "I make art because I couldn't live without doing it." She doesn't really need to explain. Her work speaks more than eloquently for itself.

Next Issue: "Antique Pyrography"

Last Issue: "Pyrography: Traditional Art,"

Pyroengraved art from the Republic of Mali in West Africa.


The e-cornerstone has been laid and the virtual floor plan is done. The halls are in place and the salons are taking shape for the International E-Museum of Pyrographic Art.

The façade still needs some work, but most important, the e-museum still needs a website. A formal invitation will be sent out by the first of the year for all to come and visit. Private invitations will be sent to all the participants prior to that date.

Remember, all you need is a good photograph of exhibition quality artwork to become a part of this unique project. Come share your favorite masterpieces (with just a photo), and network with the rest of the community of pyrographic artists.

Please write me an e-note and tell me about your work in pyrography. Also, put your e-mail address on the list to be notified of the first meeting of the international pyrographers association.

--Kathleen Menéndez

Of Interest:

A worthwhile reference book for your collection is a small one entitled Pyrography, The art of woodburning by Bernard Havez and Jean-Claude Varlet. It was published by Van Nostrand Reinhold in 1978 in English, translated from the original French under a similar title. It turns up from time to time, and is well worth picking up in a used book store. Your carving club library might also have a copy, and so might your public library. (Sophia Ionita also owns this book, in French, and works with the Le Franc pyrography tool pictured there on p. 23)

Take another look at pyrographer Andrew Talley's website. He has a nice big gallery up now with his work and Gene Sander's. Congratulations to you both.

New pyrographer Theresa Goebel is experimenting with a combination of relief and pyrography.

Carbón is how pyrographer Carlos Borbón of Costa Rica signs his name, and you don't need to know Spanish to appreciate the pyro-humor in that clever combination of his first and last names. If he can be tracked down, perhaps we can learn more about his innovative technique of pyrography on leather worked in low relief. He claims that the color tonalities you see he achieves solely with pyrographic techniques.
This website, unfortunately, is not his own, but rather a press release about his exhibit. The text is in Spanish.

The Author

Pyrographer Kathleen M. Garvey Menéndez 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--the pyrographic tool Kathleen represents.
This is the end of her first year writing articles for the WWWoodc@rvers E-Zine. That wonderful opportunity has resulted in a most gratifying year discovering so much pyrography and meeting so many wonderful folks thanks to the internet.

©1997, 2005 Kathleen M. Garvey Menéndez

Background thanks to Ace in Space

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