Renee Taylor of Alaska
Nearly two years ago, I received an e-mail from Renee Taylor from Valdez, Alaska in the U.S.A., asking about the International Association of Pyrographic Artists (IAPA). She was writing from inside the E-Museum, mid way through her tour there, which she seemed to be enjoying. She particularly spoke of the Children's Hall, because she felt it was an important aspect to highlight.
Taylor Family Sign
In her e-mail, Renee recounted that she has done professional pyrography for over 20 years. She had just recently built her own website, which she graciously invited me to see. After a visit to Renee's Burning Impressions website (linked here), I wrote back enthusiastically congratulating her on her work. Renee works in various media. Her pyrography she combines with color to produce signs--her specialty--with family names on them like the one exhibited here with her own family name. She has a special talent for creating striking designs that are colorful logos incorporating a family name while portraying the beauty of Alaska's landscape and wildlife.
Pyrographic artist Fred Barnett, besides being secretary of IAPA, is also very active in the Baton Rouge Astronomical Society near where he lives in Sorrento. His latest experiments in pyrography reflect his interest in astronomy. Fred dared to depart from more traditional pyrographic themes and undertake the challenge of expressing the wonders of the heavens in his unlikely medium. Fred says about his inspiration: "I got the original idea from the fact that often times when professional astronomers take pictures in black and white, they will reverse the colors because you can sometimes see more detail that way. I realized one day that something like that would make an interesting, and possibly unique woodburning." The piece shown here exemplifies this technique.
Another of Fred's many activities is the creation and maintenance of web pages, including his own Frederick J. Barnett Home Page. Linked from it are his woodburnings and a biographical story about him published in the Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper.
Russ Garner of Hope Valley, South Yorkshire in the U. K. has his own distinct, stylized interpretation of wildlife and other subjects. His compositions are striking. In his pyroengraving entitled "The Wizard" later in this article, he masterfully blends the strong wood grain in the flowing composition. Russ works in monochrome, that is, pyrography alone, and uses high contrast shading and strong contours to create dramatic effects with his subjects.
Brendt Travis of
St. Louis has found his artistic expression working in wood in various
ways and in a wide range of sizes. His special take on the medium of
pyrography is that he enjoys the challenge of not being able to correct
mistakes and that each piece is one of a kind. His pyrographic
technique is pointillism and his wood of preference for his pyrography
is 3/4-inch poplar.
Cowboy Kid, Detail
As you enter the Special
Hall of the E-Museum, you will find there an introduction to those
many categories of "special" that the E-Museum's
curator hopes to research and document--categories that either do not
fit neatly into any of the other broader categories or those that need
highlighting even though they overlap with others.
In some cases, "special" refers to unusual tools used in pyrography; in others, it refers to unusual materials that are burned with pyrographs. The third is the focus of this article--the use of pyrography as therapy.
My first introduction to art therapy in general was many years ago through a friend who was working with mentally ill patients in Guatemala and later the United States. She used to show me some of their work and I was startled by how telling it was in terms of how they felt about themselves and their world. Nevertheless, their feelings and their behavior improved, and their need for drugs to calm them down lessened as they expressed themselves through art.
The Champvert psychiatric clinic, a beautifully appointed facility in France is another institution that recognizes the benefits of art therapy and specifically identifies pyrography as forming part of their program.
In her paper "Occupational Therapy," Dr. Carmen Moratinos de Pablo cites the first records of occupational therapy as dating back to 660 BC. She mentions the ancient Egyptians' use of occupational therapy as well. Among the activities used in modern occupational therapy for psychiatric patients, she specifically lists pyrography.
Some time ago, Mixo Sydenham mentioned that pyro tools are provided in jails in Australia as well as occupational therapy units.
Helena Walsh, in her book on antique pyrography entitled Australian Pokerwork talks about the elderly she interviewed who reminisced about this art form in its popular period at the beginning of the 20th century. She wrote "...Most heartrending were the recollections of veterans who, shell-shocked from war battles, had responded positively when introduced to the absorbing benefits of pokerwork."
In February 1997, Johnathan Falch, who was then a student at Loma Linda University majoring in
occupational therapy, wrote me asking for information on
pyrography. By way of explanation regarding his research, he wrote:
"Occupational therapy is the use of
purposeful activity or interventions that promote health and achieve
functional outcomes. I'm reasearching how woodburning may be a
therapeutic activity for a wide range of patients diagnosed with
disabilities ranging from physical dysfunction to mental illness. For
example, to manage a basic woodburner an individual will have to have
moderate fine motor coordination and dexterity in their fingers, good
depth perception, bilateral integration, visual-motor integration, and
be able to differentiate figure ground relations. There are actually
many other performance components that apply that are of therapeutic value."
Two years later, another Loma Linda
University occupational therapy student named Tanya Miller wrote:
"I think that it is wonderful that you
have a special section dedicated to the therapeutic uses of pyrography.
As a future Occupational Therapist, we are taught to break down the
activity into several sensory, motor, and psychological components. That
way we are able to assess whether a particular patient would benefit
from doing this type of project, the types of abilities required, and
special adaptations that need to be made for that person. We have a
variety of adaptive equipment that we can somehow apply to the regular
tools so that a person with limits in certain areas can enjoy the activity."
The following words and the source for the title of this article came
from Renee Taylor, owner of the Burning
Impressions website and enterprise, whose positive example is an
inspiration. After writing that first e-mail mentioned at the beginning
of this article, Renee continued visiting the E-Museum of Pyrographic
Art and eventually found the Special
Hall of the E-Museum, where she found that introduction to all those
many categories of "special." Once again, from there in the
E-Museum, Renee wrote:
When I was 15 years old, I was diagnosed with severe Rheumatoid
Arthritis. Since then, I have developed Lupus, Chronic Pain,
Fibromyalgia, extensive nerve damage, Schleroderma, and connective
tissue type problems accompanied by severe, daily pain and deformities
in my hands and feet.
Through a strong determination, I have adapted and continue to create works of art, as well as typing, crocheting, and knitting. I have written several articles published in the Rare Disease Organization's flyers and magazines, offering hope, ideas, and encouragement along with a positive approach to dealing with (or rather ignoring the fact of) being disabled through a process of acceptance and then making a few changes within life to assist, and including "support," which I can't leave out because it is utmost to one's self esteem.
Kern Family Sign
In my life time, I have seen too many physicians to even remember them
all. Most told me to sit back, do nothing, and accept the fact that I
was not going to be able to continue with a "normal life." A
few even told me "my life expectancy was not long." That was
over 15 years ago.
I have a daughter who is also disabled. I devote my time to teaching her the fun things and responsibilities of life. I tell her that we can do anything we put our minds to--we just do it a bit differently than someone else might. And that's okay! My present physician is wonderful; he has done studies and believes that pyrographic art (or any other such activity as drawing, typing, and crocheting) is essential to a healthy mind and well being. I have seen pyrography work miracles within my life and for my daughter.
Please continue to spread the word,
and follow up on this wonderful expression of "healing art."
I must mention, with Schleroderma, one's toes and fingers have very poor
circulation. I had the beginning of gangrene in my finger tips and
toes. The activity of movement (drawing), then the warmth of woodburning
actually brought the circulation back to my fingers. I'm thankful to say
that the gangrene has now healed. I make no medical claims, but for
those with cold fingers or circulation difficulty, my doctor agrees with
me on this fact.
Renee even ended her letter with "Thank you again for your time." (Thank YOU for YOUR time, Renee!) and wished me "Bright Blessings," before signing.
Knowing that our IAPA Secretary, Fred
Barnett, was dealing with Muscular Dystrophy (MD) and wheelchair
bound yet still managing a very active lifestyle, I approached him about
an interview to explore this topic.
Whenever I interview artists for my articles, I always include the question of how they got started in pyrography (my favorite question). In regards to this particular article, my specific question was whether they had started pyrography for its therapeutic benefits.
"I was never aware of any health or therapeutic value of pyrography, so I can't help you there," Fred wrote. "I would understand some of them, such as dexterity, concentration, etc., but I personally can't speak to whether I have been affected in that way or not."
Nevertheless, Fred's story is one of the best I've heard yet in answer to my favorite question. Here's Fred's (REALLY SPECIAL!) story of what sparked his motivation to take up pyrography:
I first got interested in pyrography from a
book we had
celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Peanuts comic strip. It
selection of Sunday strips, and in one, Lucy remarks to Charlie Brown
doesn't have his name on his bat, and she says Linus has a woodburning
home, and that she'll use it to put his name on the bat. Of course C.B.
imagining what having his name on his bat will mean to others, what a
thing this will be, until Lucy returns with the blackened, gnarled
his bat, saying, "I had a little trouble with the woodburning
I told that story on the alt.comics.peanuts newsgroup after Mr.
Anyway, that comic got me interested in woodburning, and it was a few
years later I finally got a set for Christmas. Like I said, I don't know
actual health benefits I've gotten, but it is something I enjoy, so
the mental aspect.
That "mental aspect" Fred mentioned is the therapy we all enjoy with pyrography. For an artist, whether physically challenged or not, the pleasure and relaxation derived from a creative activity in our medium of choice is a health benefit we all recognize and professionals prescribe. Participating in a creative pyro project transports us away from the cares of everyday life as we become absorbed in something that even after completion brings us ongoing personal satisfaction.
What Fred did share about his pyrography work in relation to his MD is
how he has to adapt himself in order to accomplish it. He said:
I guess I have had to make a few adjustments because of my disability. One is that while I'm left-handed writing, I actually burn using my right hand. Because of the way I sit (I have scoliosis [curved spine]) it's too awkward to use my left hand. Also, I don't hold the pen like a writing pen, but instead have to hold it with three or four fingers around it.
Occupational therapist Linda Cutter submitted the following story on Russ Garner's behalf:
Following a serious motorcycle accident some fifteen years ago, Russ Garnerwas introduced to
pyrography as a form of Occupational Therapy in order to try to restore
and maintain movement in his greatly damaged right arm.
Having sustained major nerve damage as a result of the accident, Russ had lost around 95 percent usage of his arm. Sitting in the corner of the Occupational Therapy unit of his clinic was an unused pyrography burner. Already a talented amateur artist, Russ was a natural choice to investigate the value of pyrography as therapy.
As a right-handed artist, the loss of use of his arm could have seen the end of his creative future. However, the unused pyrography machine proved to be a turning point in Russ's life.
As Russ says,
"my right arm remains the source of creation whilst my left arm has become the interpreter of that creation, the engine if you like, which steers the right arm to achieve the results."
Today Russ remains unable to use his right arm--the nerve damage was too great.
However, the art of pyrography has helped Russ to maintain direction in his life. Although his desire to earn a living from his art is a very new concept, responses from his first public show were very encouraging with a number of commissions resulting.
Living in the Derbyshire Peak District, Russ finds the inspiration for
his work often comes from the abundance of wildlife and the wild
ruggedness of his surroundings.
As news of his skill spread around his small home village of Bradwell, Russ found local people calling on him to commission works that have included birds of prey, local badger colonies, as well as beloved family collie dogs!
Contrasting dramatically with his studies of the wildlife around him, much of Russ' work is based upon Fantasy Art where he draws upon his knowledge of folklore and myths from around the country.
Brendt Travis at Work on
Pyrograph of Mark McGwire at Bat
Afflicted with juvenile rheumatoid
arthritis by the age of two, Brendt's knees, elbows, and hands were
severely affected. Doctors were discouraging about his prognosis and
predicted he would be in a wheelchair before long. When still a child,
his church community laid hands on him in a prayer session, which he
credits with an improvement in his condition, mainly in the lessening of
his debilitating pain. Although he loves sports, he has never been able
to participate. Art and Shop became his joy in life. He learned to
work in wood in all sorts of ways. He also eventually was even able to
work as a draftsman for McDonnell Douglas before computerized drafting.
by Brendt Travis and son
Sometimes the pyrography itself is an adaptation, as in the case of a
retiring co-worker who was also a fellow member of the Northern Virginia
Carvers. Jim McLeod liked to do relief carving, but when chronic
bursitis affected his shoulder and arm, he decided to get a burning tool
and try pyrography as an alternative because of its low impact compared
to the relief carving.
In a recent conversation with pyrographic artist, author, and teacher Cheryl Dow of W. Bloomfield, Michigan, I was very touched when she offered openly and generously all sorts of health advice from her own personal experience and also told me about a pyrography class she gave and how she helped students with special needs adapt in order to participate along with the others. The one example reminded me how my friend Lourdes would give a month-long vacation course for girls at her academy. She would offer various projects for the girls to choose from and group all the girls together according to project and regardless of age. When questioned about why she would put them all together considering their different ages and therefore different abilities, she said she had decided that the big girls would finish first and then would have the opportunity to be mentors to the younger girls and help them finish their projects and that it worked very well. Cheryl had a similar inspiration when she had one student who was the sort who finished very quickly and was ready and anxious to move on, and another who was just recovering from a stroke. Instead of separating them, she deliberately put them side by side and asked the quick student to repeat everything she said to the recovering student to give the latter time to grasp the concepts and work through them. It was a great solution for both.
Another student she talked about was one who was suffering from Parkinson's. To enable him to work, she moved the work back on the table, had the student put his entire hand and forearm on the table to steady them. With the pyro pen still turned off, she taped the pen to his hand at a 45-degree angle with velcro. She discovered later that adding a bowling wrist support with an extra piece of velcro would lend further support. She also learned that some people afflicted with Parkinson's can take a pill against the shaking as well. She finished by saying that this student was able to complete his project, and was visibly moved with gratitude and a deep satisfaction afterwards.
Here's a case in which the artist had to adapt herself and for whom pyrography was also an adaptation: About the time I heard from Loma Linda University student Johnathan Falch back in 1997, I had just recently gotten a letter from a pyrographer who for 20 years used to be a prize-winning woodcarver until she lost the use of her right hand because of multiple sclerosis (MS). Teri Hutchison of Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA, says she took up pyrography and was quite pleased that, although she is righthanded, she could come up with good work (even win prizes) using only her left hand. For some time now, Teri has been signing her work "Lfty" (short for "Lefty"). Wanting to still be around wood carvers, she and her friends started a carving club in Santa Fe. The members have included pyrography in their activities. In addition, she teaches pyrography or carving to six other handicapped people (or "handiCAPABLE," as Teri calls them).
Teri and the Santa Fe Carvers have been featured in two articles in Chip Chats magazine: the January/February 1998 issue and the May/June 1999 issue.
I am most grateful to all the pyros who offered their stories here.
Although I took up pyrography back in 1975 thanks to a friend's invitation to her art academy in Guatemala and a wonderful little wood armoire I saw there decorated in pyrography, which sparked my imagination, I certainly can attest to the enjoyment and relaxation, the enthusiasm and satisfaction it produced in my life.
By 1981, I started having some major physical problems, which finally in 1993 were diagnosed as Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), a less common form of arthritis. This year, finally, Fibromyalgia was added to the diagnosis.
Because of changes in my life, principally a move to the United States in 1986, I found myself with many personal obligations added to the difficulty of my health problems. Together, they pretty much doused my little pyro flame completely.
At the end of 1996, an opportunity arose that allowed me to once more establish a connection to pyrography by becoming deeply involved in researching and writing about pyrography, a focus in my life that helps me deal with my handicap. If it is harder for me to move around physically, at least now I can travel the world via the internet and share my interest with pyrographers even on the opposite side of the globe.
Click here for page two: other pyrography news and a final picture to make you smile