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by Kathleen Menéndez

Pyrography News From Around the World

Newsletter No. 11

An Exotic and Unusual Manifestation of Pyrography

Because of its complexity, only one work was featured in this issue's newsletter.

It is Maricha Oxley's intriguing sculpture in the round, carved from one pine log, with elements that were carved in low and high relief, incised, pyrocarved, painted, and pierced. It is worked with fire and also uses fire as a symbol and theme.

Apart from its general interest, a study of this work is of interest to pyrographers to understand the role, albeit a less conventional one, that the pyrographic medium plays in conjunction with the other media to create this work, which dances around a fire.

There are many pictures to illustrate the multi-faceted piece from different angles (although none compares to seeing it in real life and viewing it by day and night both). There is also a lot of accompanying text, requiring a close and patient reading and frequent reference back to the images in order to grasp the subtleties described.

Interview with Maricha Oxley, Sculptor of the Corroboree

Corroboree, View 1
by Maricha Oxley, 2000

Sculpture on pine log in burning, carving, and pierce work
Whole Sculpture (carved in the round from one log).
Height is 800 mm x 440 mm in diameter
Circumference: 1.3 Metre
Base: (solid log): H.700 mm x 600 mm dia.
Fire (pierced carving in center of sculpture): H.180 mm x 85 mm dia.

"Corroboree" (from the Macquarie Dictionary):
An Aboriginal assembly of sacred, festive, or warlike character. Any large or noisy gathering.

"Corroboree" (for Maricha's sculpture) signifies
a special celebration of everyday happenings and sacred spiritual emotions.

Sculpture consists of sculptures within a sculpture of four separate areas of detailed carving.

Image courtesy of the artist

Belonging to a local woodcarvers club as well as an on-line woodcarvers mailing list has given me as a pyrographer a great awareness of just how complicated being a sculptor in wood can be from a technical point of view. For those of us engaged solely in pyrography or pyrography with color, it is amazing to discover the enormous amount of technical expertise and equipment needed to be a sculptor.

Thanks to an on-line thread, I learned about Maricha Oxley's planned project of the Corroboree sculpture and also how much preparation was involved. (Part, as you will see, was the fact that a green mould was growing on the log!) Below is her e-mail of last May sent to the whole group on the woodcarvers mailing list:

Have been carving all day; little by little the green mould is drying and I'm carving it off as I go. The bleaching is certainly helping, and now that I have removed a great deal from the centre of the log, I will have to watch out for the drying, which could in turn cause cracking...[and] will cover it each day with Linseed oil, particularly the ends of the log. In the middle, I plan to burn off so that I can do an "inverted type of carving." Instead of carving and then pyrographing it for detail [in the usual manner], I will be pyrographing first and carving detail off. Hope it works.


Although both her parents came from faraway Spain and her brother lives in likewise remote Argentina, sculptor Maricha Oxley calls Australia home. Given the opportunity to do this sculpture without constraints, she soon found her inspiration and realized a personal goal close to her heart:

"My inspiration for this sculpture came from two sources--a painting by Matisse, and a live performance of Aboriginal dancers. I wanted to make a personal contribution to the process of Reconciliation."

Corroboree, View 1, detail of the fascia with the didgeridoo musician
by Maricha Oxley, 2000

Sculpture on pine log in burning, carving, and pierce work
What you are seeing:
This one of the three fasciae displays a didgeridoo player. First, the panel of the fascia was blowtorched, then the archway and background were carved away, allowing the (blackened) figure to stand out against the natural wood background. The figure itself was slightly rounded and shaped then pyrographed and detailed with white paint.
An Aboriginal wind instrument consisting of a wooden pipe about 2 metres long and five cm in diameter on which complex rhythmic patterns are played more or less on one note.

Image courtesy of the artist

The Beginnings of the Corroboree Project

It all came about because of a competition, sponsored by the State Forest of Tasmania together with the Australian Wood Review Magazine, designed to give the humble pine tree a better image.

Maricha had never carved pine before. (In Australia, as in many places, pine is the cheapest timber and is generally used by the building industry.) But after having been given "plantation timbers" like Spotted Gum and Eucalyptus to carve ("like carving steel," she says) in conjunction with commissions from the State forests in NSW, Maricha was looking forward to experimenting on Radiata Pine.

Corroboree, View 2
by Maricha Oxley, 2000

Sculpture on pine log in burning, carving, color, and pierce work

What you are seeing:

This picture shows a second dancer (hunter) with spears pyrographed; to the left of the dancer is the tail of the pyrographed kangaroo of the second fascia on the left column, and on the right column is the leg of the didgeridoo musician (from view 1 and view 1, detail, above). The center of the sculpture (here appearing to the right of the dancer with spears) is the Fire (H.180 mm x 85 mm dia.)
It is a turned, pierced, carved fire with a flickering light in the centre; at the base of the fire are small pyroengraved logs. The in-the-round carved figures--inside the tree and under the canopy--are all in the natural colors of the grain, which the artist has masterfully utilized throughout to give bountiful depth, flow, and movement to the various elements of the sculpture.

In the lower section of this image, you can see the top part of a pyrographed circular design emerging.

Image courtesy of the artist

In response to the competition for "Re-Designing Pine," Maricha was given two logs of Radiata Pine. The challenge was to "translate both the symbolism of life and fire, and the fluidity and movement of dance into the timber."

Because the log was green, it was necessary to wet the wood as she carved to minimize splitting and shrinkage. Problems occurred along the way, Maricha recounts, that dictated how the sculpture would be completed.

Maricha explained that the concept of the 'Tree of Life' evolved with three trunks supporting the canopy for structural strength. Each trunk exhibits a different facet of Aboriginal life and culture. The growth rings and grain of the log are exposed to enhance the perception of movement. To explore the possibilities of carving Radiata Pine, Maricha incorporated many carving techniques: in-the-round, low and high relief, reverse relief, and pierced carving.

Maricha's Artistic Challenges

Corroboree, View 3
by Maricha Oxley, 2000

Sculpture on pine log in burning, carving, color, and pierce work

What you are seeing:

The whole sculpture can be seen from this photo. The canopy was carved from the top to the sides when wet. By wetting it, Maricha hoped to minimize cracking since the log was totally green when she was sculpting it.

Two small openings (eyes) above the fascia panel were done to indicate branching out and make the fascia a sort of "tree face." This was done for strength plus stress release to prevent the timber from buckling.

The partial figure on the left has a spear in his left hand and a boomerang in the other.
The taller dancer on the right has musical sticks . His left arm rests on his right arm for structural support. This is the only figure not attached to either tree trunk but rather is supported by a hidden support behind the front leg. This figure was not separated from the adjoining trunks until the sculpture was nearing completion so that it could serve as support for the canopy while the work was in progress.

On the base under this figure is the second circle showing clapping hands, which were carved out of the blowtorched circle thus leaving the hands light for contrast.

Clapping hands symbolize the festive event of a good hunt, plenty of food, and sharing their happiness and success.

Image courtesy of the artist

The fire is carved onto a turned cone, and fire is also symbolized in the texture and color created by the use of a blowtorch and pyrography. The design is further enhanced by the use of hidden electric light under the carved and pyroengraved fire and behind the pyroengraved pierced fasciae of kiln-dried Radiata Pine board.

Carving in different techniques also required contrast, and pyrography was again the answer for Maricha. It not only provides good contrast but also is twin-like to the pine grain--complimenting and drawing out the wood's beauty.

Maricha's notes on her work include the following observations: "I found that pine pyrographs well but emits an awful odor; therefore, all burning was done outdoors.

Between the smells of the linseed oil to keep the tree from cracking and the pyrography, the smell and tendency to burn fiercely were constant factors, for which a water spray bottle was always handy as well as a fan to disperse any toxic fumes."

Corroboree's Elements of Fire and Light

Corroboree, View 4
by Maricha Oxley, 2000

Sculpture on pine log in burning, carving, paint, and pierce work

What you are seeing:

This photo shows the Hunter on the fascia panel of the column carrying his game. The hunter was drawn, then the archway was carved all around the figure giving it a textured background. Next it was pyrographed with the animals (wallaby, kangaroo, and bilbies). Then the figure was carved and rounded at the edges and the features and rocks incised. Last, the panel was pyrographed again.

The stylized dancer with his upward arms and bent knee was carved in the round leaving the elbows attached to the tree trunks. (The spears were not yet inserted at this stage).

The entire lower section of the log was burnt with the blowtorch to stop cracking plus hardening of the outer layer.
Around the lower section (base) of the log are three dark circles with images, of which one circle and part of another can be seen in this view.

Circles are important to the Aborigines and are symbolic of many things. Here the circular designs on the base are symbolizing unity, harmony, and rhythm.
The stomping feet design shown on the circle in this view, was carved in low relief, then the circle was detailed in both white paint and pyrography.

Mostly women are the ones that do the clapping, stomping, and zig-zag movements that accompany the dance celebration represented here.

Image courtesy of the artist

Below you will see the fifth and final view of Maricha Oxley's wondrous sculpture Corroboree. Here Maricha explains the significance of fire and light in her work, and recounts the elaborate techniques (emphasizing the role of pyrography) required to achieve the desired effects with these elements.

We have already seen that the sculpture consists of a tree-like canopy supported by three columns that look like three tree trunks on the inside and sides but have superimposed very thin panels (which Maricha refers to as the fasciae) facing outwards. These fasciae bear relief work or incised figurative images of Aborigenes and Aboriginal themes darkened (by blowtorch and a pyrography tool) to contrast with the interspersed natural woodgrain figures (carved in the round) of Aboriginal dancers (a hunter with pyrographed spears, a second dancer with musical sticks, and a third with a boomerang) dancing around a fire carved in the center of the sculpture. All of the above are supported on a blackened base that likewise displays three circular designs (one of stomping feet and two of clapping hands).

What we have only touched on so far is that the central fire with pyroengraved logs as well as the three outer panels (fasciae) are all lit!

Maricha explains that the combined effects of the central (lighted) fire, lighted fasciae (more on these below), and pyrography in this sculpture were essential for her to imbue her sculpture with the ambience, the spiritual celebration of everyday life, as well as sacred feelings and emotional reconciliation she sought to convey.

Moreover, Maricha says further, the grain of the wood has been blended with the pyrography to enchance the sculpture. Maricha's utilization and emphasis (through burning) on the grain of the wood contributes enormously to the feeling of movement in this sculpture.

Another amazing aspect of Maricha's sculpture is that it looks different during the day than it does at night because the lighting effects change the colors and shadows. At night, everything is dark except the flickering light from the center hitting the dancers and the fasciae on the outside drawing the viewer's attention with an effect like stained glass. During the day, however, the natural grain, harmony, and rhythm of all the sculptural elements intertwine within the whole sculpture.

Corroboree, View 5
by Maricha Oxley, 2000

Sculpture on pine log in burning, carving, paint, and pierce work

What you are seeing:

Emphasized in this view is the third fascia, which is lighted from within with a special little "spaghetti" fluorescent tube, Length 350 mm x 3 mm diameter.

The design on the fascia panel depicts everyday social life of Aborigines, including the water hole (Billabong), their food, their spiritual beliefs and totems, their tools, animals/ancestors, medicinal insects and animals, their circles and pointillism.

Image courtesy of the artist

The fascia in the view above was incised lightly, then pyrographed, pierced, and painted with metallic pens--mostly gold, silver, red, blue, and yellow. It was then burnt again slightly to strengthen and harden the thin panel.

Following is how Maricha created additional 'fire' effects and how she lighted the sculpture: Inside (behind each fascia), a box was hollowed out to insert the fluorescent tubes. The back of each fascia panel was covered with a flame-colored transparent vinyl (with flame shapes in reds, blues, yellows--that is, fire colors), which was glued to the fascia, then pierced with tiny holes to allow heat to escape from the box while the electric light is on.

So far, the Corroboree's only real-world exhibition was in church--a very gratifying first showing for Maricha's work, in keeping with her personal goal (and Australia's national one) of seeking Reconciliation with their Aboriginal population.

A picture of Corroboree's has already been featured in a recent issue of the Australian Wood Review magazine. Another magazine--The Australian Woodworker is considering the sculpture for their publication, and the State Forest Department will also display the Corroboree at the big Sydney Working With Wood Show, and are looking at doing an article on the sculpture in their magazine, the Bush Telegraph.

"Corroboree is my first sculpture carved in Radiata Pine," Maricha says, "and I am surprised and pleased with the results. I have several ideas crystalising for future carvings."

Maricha says "It is a pity that the readers can only see Corroboree in pictures because it is subtle but unusual. Those who see it [in real life] state what a wonderful feeling they get of peace, harmony, and love."

The Author

Kathleen M. Garvey Menéndez learned her pyrography techniques in Guatemala in 1975-1977. Her sister, Artist Sharon H. Garvey, later joined her there to collaborate on a pyrography project designed to promote this art form in the United States by means of a didactic book and a pyrography tool made by Navarro of Mexico.

Thanks to the internet, January 2001 marked the beginning of the fifth year of articles on pyrography for the Woodcarver Online Magazine (WOM), started January 1997, and the fourth year of the E-Museum of Pyrographic Art, which opened its virtual doors January 1998. In March of that year, the International Association of Pyrographic Artists (IAPA) was formed and members began meeting on line. Linked from the E-Museum's Café Flambé, which hosts the IAPA meetings, is the Yahoo Groups uniting_pyrographers mailing list, member list, and chat forum set up by IAPA Co-founder Mixo Sydenham of Australia for IAPA members.

© 2001 Kathleen M. Garvey Menéndez, all rights reserved.