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by Kathleen Menéndez

Pyrography News From Around the World

Newsletter No. 17, Page Two of Two

Folk Art Interpretations


Page One:
Abdulwahab Mihoub: Folk Artist from the Maghreb

Page Two:
Abby Levine: Works of Humor and Satire

Abby Levine: Works of Humor and Satire

Big Bend Postcard
by Abby Levine

Pyrography and Japan Color on Wood

Image courtesy of the artist

A native of the State of New Jersey, American artist Abby Levine decided some ten years ago to make Marathon, Texas her home.

From Austin Chronicle Art Critic Jesse Sublett: Working predominantly with wood, using Japan color and a scroll saw, Dremel tool, and woodburner, Levine creates deliciously complex 3D pieces with interlocking architectural structures festooned with icons, fetishes, and cutout figures of historical, political, and cultural significance.

Western Door Topper
by Abby Levine

Pyrography on wood, 8.5 in. by 29 in.

Image courtesy of the artist

How She Got Started

"When I moved to Texas in 1991, I had been doing weekly illustrations in ink and brush for an alternative weekly in Seattle, and three-dimensional architectural constructions 'on the side'.

Travelling in and reading about the West, I became interested in the sort of kitschy tourist representation of its icons, which one could find in motel and national park gift shops. I was really tired of the slackness or lack of tension in my ink lines. I had used wood burning a while back, in a depiction of Jesse Jackson as part of a group portrait of the 1988 presidential candidates, and remembered the unusual linear quality it produced and thought it would be appropriate for the theme of the work.

So I bought myself an inexpensive tool (the kind with the changeable points), and got started. I liked the effect so much that I purchased a rheostat-controlled tool (Detailmaster IV Sabre), which I have been using ever since. It is a little 'long in the tooth' but is a real workhorse."

Western Door Topper, detail
by Abby Levine

Image courtesy of the artist

"I also use pyrography to transfer images to wood by burning through the tracings, leaving wonderful scraps of translucent paper images with seared edges, which I always intend to use for something but wind up throwing out.

Lately I have been using it as an engraving tool and painting over the burned line. I was drawn to pyrography because of its populist connotations. It reminded me of those pot-holder weaving kits I had as a child, tourist knick-knacks, and the illustrations on the board games we used to collect. Being basically a cheapskate, by upbringing and necessity, I prefer to use readily available, ordinary materials, and I have been using the same wood-burning tool for upwards of seven years (with occasional replacement of the pens)."

Abby Levine at Work in Her Studio

Image courtesy of the artist

Technical Aspects

Tools. "Along with the above-mentioned Detailmaster, I use a Dremel for shaping, drilling, etc., a Hegner Multimax 22-V stationary scroll saw and a hand held jigsaw for cutting, a 1/3 sheet palm sander and a detail sander (self evident), and various miscellaneous nail punches and other small hand tools."

Wood. "I generally work with lumber that is available in an ordinary hardware store--birch plywood and luan, which I purchase in 4 ft x 8 ft sheets (for 1/4 in.) or 5 ft by 5 ft sheets (for 1/2 in.). I also use pine, poplar, and cedar for carved portions. I don't turn my nose up at "fancy" wood, I just can't afford it!"

Finish. "Most of my pieces are painted as well as burned, and I use Japan color, which is a super-flat decorative oil-based paint. It can be extended with mineral spirits and used as a stain, or used straight for a heavy, chalky, matte effect. I then coat the pieces after overnight drying and buffing, using a clear spray in a can (Krylon, etc.) to whatever degree of gloss is appropriate."

Size. "I have worked on pieces as small as 11-1/2 in. tall by 3 in. by 3/16 in., and as large as 52 in. by 58 in. by 9 in. However, I find an intermediate size the most appealing!"

Move Outta Babylon
by Abby Levine

Pyrography and color on wood

Image courtesy of the artist

The Story Behind the Art Work

"I recall the summer I did the Bob Marley, Marcus Garvey, Haile Selassie piece--MOVE OUTTA BABYLON--that we had just purchased a CD compilation of the history of Reggae. The liner notes were really informative and made a connection between Marcus Garvey's "back to Africa movement" in the late 1920's (he was a Jamaican), the Rastafarian Movement (a messianic belief system which posits that a descendant of the union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba will be the Redeemer. Rastas are vegetarians, and spend a lot of time smoking Pot), and Reggae music. The Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, was, for a time, believed to be the Redeemer, and so was Marley. I have always been fascinated by belief systems and the cultural structures that they generate, and this subject had the added attraction of a rich visual context. (Marley is depicted as "The Lion of Judah," I use a lot of African patterning and imagery, etc).

I spent a lot of time on the research and the execution of this piece, and used pyrography extensively to suggest the quality both of African art and artifacts and that of old photographs and maps. I also used thinned-down enamel paint and colored pencils, layered and sprayed between coats, for the coloration."

Move Outta Babylon, detail of Marcus Garvey
by Abby Levine

Pyrography and color on wood

Image courtesy of the artist

Abby's Style

Although art critics--like Jesse Sublett quoted at the beginning--have written some very eloquent and interesting comments about Abby's work and how they perceive it and define it, here is what Abby herself says about her style and how it came about:

"I think of it as 'history painting' in a sense. Somewhere between a museum diorama and the pictures in an old school textbook from the early '60's. I try to present 'alternate histories', ones that don't necessarily reinforce the status quo, but familiarize viewers with ideas and movements that were out of the mainstream (for example, Utopian movements of the mid-19th century in the United States). I developed many of these techniques and interests while doing commissioned work for a fellow who lives nearby, over a period of six years."

Fabulous Las Vegas
by Abby Levine

Pyrography and color on assembled wood cutouts

Image courtesy of the artist

Abby did not refer to her style as pop art or folk art as art critics have described it; however she did say that she liked working in pyrography because she thinks of it as a 'craft' medium rather than what is traditionally considered one of the 'fine art' media. One reason she chose pyrography as one medium in her mixed-media works is that it has what she termed a 'popular' look to it.

Her motivation, she explains, is "Both to draw people into the work and to place me, as the artist, closer to the viewer. Not a lot of folks have used fine art materials to make the work more like a household object, a piece of furniture, a toy--something less intimidating and more intimate."

As to the viewing public she attracts because of her style of work and/or the media she uses, Abby remarks, "Not necessarily your ordinary fine art public. A lot of women respond strongly to my work, as do people with a good sense of humour. Leftists, intellectuals, activists, and children of all political persuasions (!) respond strongly to my work."

Has her choice of media and her style hampered her acceptance in galleries or other expositions? Or otherwise determined where she will show her work, the reception she gets, etc.? Abby responds:

"It is not so much the medium (although some of my pieces are cumbersome and difficult to store and transport) that makes acceptance of my work difficult, but rather its political content and its ambivalent view of the 'art world'. Since I am female, and my work could be considered as being in a craft medium, it is occasionally devalued in a fine art context. Despite all of this, I have had a fair degree of success in getting the work shown. Occasionally folks suggest I show in 'outsider' venues; however, since I am a trained artist (although I've attempted to unlearn much of the elitist hogwash that comes with the training) I feel that would be somewhat dishonest (although some would say I qualify because of my mental problems!)."

Fabulous Las Vegas, detail
by Abby Levine

Pyrography and color on wood

Image courtesy of the artist

"I like to think of myself as someone who happens to have the ability to communicate visually and make things that people enjoy having around and are simultaneously challenged by. I don't think of myself as a special genius or that my abilities elevate me over the general public.

I would like to be able to make a living at least as good as someone who flips burgers. I guess the WPA artists are sort of ideals to me, like the Mexican muralists--pariticipating in the cultural discourse rather than closing themselves off from it, and hence valued by the society, and not viewed as parasites or high priests."

Happy Trails
by Abby Levine

Pyrography and color on wood cutouts

Image courtesy of the artist

Closing Thoughts

From Abby: "I have used pyrography extensively for narrative, historical pieces, compiling burnings of photos and images and incorporating them into larger, quasi-symbolic structures. In these pieces, the pyrography is sort of 'memory writing', stamping the image into consciousness, hot off the presses of the past."

And a last quote from Jesse Sublett: "Levine's work always makes me think and smile at the same time--a pleasurable sensation."

Viewing Abby Levine's Art Work

Abby currently has a cowboy piece in the show "Cowboy at Heart" at the Museum of Civilisation in Quebec City. Much of Abby's work is in private collections in Ft. Davis and Marfa, Texas.

On-Line Viewing. Linked here is Jesse Sublett's excellent critique, written about Abby's work for a show that opened in January this year at Gallery 1313 in Austin, Texas.

And here is a link to the website of the Kiowa Gallery that shows her work, particularly the cowboy works.

Linked here is Abby's own website AbbyArt.com/.

And here is a link to Abby's salon in the E-Museum of Pyrographic Art.

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, this is the sixth year of articles on pyrography for the Woodcarver Online Magazine (WOM), started January 1997, and the fifth 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.

2002, Kathleen M. Garvey Menéndez, all rights reserved.