Woodcarver Ezine
Back Issues
Carvers' Companion Gateway


by Kathleen Menéndez

Pyrography News From Around the World

Newsletter No. 24, Page One of One

Paul Chojnowski

River of Blood / Bridge of Hope
by Paul Chojnowski, 1995

Votive candles on burned, scorched, and carved birch plywood triptych
144 in. by 96 in. by 12 in.

Part of a multi-media installation
in collaboration with Kevin Haller
titled AGIARY (Fire Temple),
exhibited at the Albany Museum of Art, Albany, Georgia, 1995.

Image courtesy of the artist

Signature Work

Ever since his college days--Hobart College in Geneva, New York and the Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri--American artist Paul Chojnowski sought different ways of doing art. Salient in this effort during his first decade of abstract painting and printmaking was his participation in an avant-garde "Naked People" group show--à la Yves Klein "blue paintings"--in Atlanta, Georgia in 1991.

Not long after that show, however, he made a deliberate decision to depart from his non-objective work and start drawing in recognizable imagery. By his 1993 show in Atlanta, his distinct pyrographic techniques of drawing by burning and scorching on wood and paper marked the debut of what is still today--a decade later--his signature work.

An Installation Work

In conjunction with special exhibits, installation art has been around for decades displayed as a construction or organization of pieces or images designed to portray a particular concept. Installations are often interactive and sometimes even utilize live subjects to convey the desired concept.

At twelve feet tall, the triptych above is a striking example of one of the large works prepared for a 1996 show where Paul collaborated with another artist Kevin Haller to build an installation called Agiary (Fire Temple).

Paul's and Kevin's proposed original ideas for a "faux temple to internal combustion" eventually developed into a collection of ancient Greek temple, Zoroastrian (because fire is a big part of their ceremony) types of images ("including some Catholic trappings from my childhood that crept in," Paul says) plus sounds and video and lighting effects (Kevin's specialties) and votive candles, which can be observed in the piece above and which were used throughout the installation. There was a 12-ft entrance wall and a twin of the triptych above, which had forest images. There were three 'towers' with the shape of a bishop's hat; one of the three was interactive--it was a 'bell tower' with a 'church' bell you could reach in and ring. In one area was a repository with a lecturn on a podium that had candles inside. The lecturn held an open journal that had pages with quotes of interest from famous and favorite books of the artist and his friends. In another area was an octagonal 'altar' with four kneelers where trompe l'oeil images of a man, woman, and child appeared.

The installation, which represented about a year's work, was first shown at a museum in Albany, Georgia. Later, it was shown again in an Atlanta gallery to great effect in a large salon with a blocked-out skylight and covered windows. Moving images and a soundtrack (which was wired from the octagonal altar with four high-quality speakers) added to the ambience.

by Paul Chojnowski, 1992

Burned and scorched paper, 30 in. by 22 in.

Exhibited at Macon & Co. Fine Art, Atlanta, 1992. Private Collection

Image courtesy of the artist

Experimenting in Figurative Work

His show in 1993 was almost exclusively figurative work done by blowtorch including a couple of landscapes. It was also the first time Paul used wood as well as paper, allowing him to do larger pieces. His biggest piece in that show was a 4-ft-by-5-ft work on plywood entitled "Three Bathers."

The piece entitled "Atalanta" (above) is representative of his first pyrographic series on paper. Another from that series, entitled "Reluctant Swimmer #2," is on line in the Paul Chojnowski Salon in the E-Museum of Pyrographic Art. "Requiescat," likewise in his E-Museum salon, is a pyrograph on wood, distinct in technique from the ones on paper from that time.

In the mid 1990's, Paul did most of his largest figurative works on wood panels. He did a number of wonderful works during that period in a surrealistic style, of which "River of Blood / Bridge of Hope" (above at the top) is one fine example and a couple of others you won't want to miss on line in the Paul Chojnowski Salon intriguingly entitled "Searching for Religion at Century's End" (a small detail from this one follows "Nature Study" below) and "Neither one of us knew she would give them to me."

Paul says he still uses these techniques on wood panels today; however, near the end of the 1990's and into the 2000's, he says he began to feel they had become "too comfortable" and he once more started exploring his other pyro technique on paper, which you will see more about later in this segment.

Nature Study
by Paul Chojnowski, 1996-97

Mixed media on burned and scorched plywood, 60 in. by 42 in.

Exhibited Macon & Co. Fine Art, Atlanta, 1997. Private Collection

Image courtesy of the artist

Technical Aspects

Surface Materials. For his works on wood panels, particularly the large installation works and others done in the mid 1990's, Paul uses birch veneer plywood. For his works on paper, because he requires something very heavy to withstand the pyro technique he employs, Paul uses 300-lb. D'Arches watercolor paper.

Tools. By way of blowtorches, Paul uses what is referred to as a roofer's blowtorch, which produces a propane flame the size of a man's hand. He likewise uses a somewhat smaller one called a plumber's blowtorch and a still smaller hobby blowtorch, both butane, which produce a line from one inch down to half an inch wide. For the smallest effects, he even uses a jeweler's torch, which gives him a line similar to one done with a charcoal pencil. On some of his works on wood panels, Paul uses carving tools. And an iron, as you will see in the next paragraph on color.

Color. Aniline dyes (also known as toymaker dyes) are Paul's choice where he adds color. He also uses an encaustic technique of ironing wax on his wood panels to serve as a resist to contain areas where he is applying color. "Nature Study" (above) is an example. In addition, in some cases he irons an image onto the panel, such as the elephant pictures that appear in the book (also in "Nature Study" above).

Searching for Religion at Century's End, Detail
by Paul Chojnowski, 1995-96

Burned, scorched, and carved birch plywood, 96 in. by 96 in.

Exhibited at the Chattahoochee Valley Art Museum 1996

Image courtesy of the artist

Techniques on wood. In some of his works on wood, Paul uses carving along with the pyrographic techniques. (For example, in an installation prepared from 1994 to 1995, he did burning on sculptural pieces.) For his burning and scorching effects, Paul uses the blowtorches as described in the 'Tools' paragraph above. The size of the blowtorch he uses is determined by the size of the area to be burned as well as the darkness or depth of the burn required. In places where he wants light contrasts he uses metal masks of aluminum foil over plywood cutouts to leave unburned the wood panel underneath. Paul says that he uses the blowtorches "as a drawing medium" and creates the desired effects according to the amount of time he exposes the wood to heat and the distance he maintains the torch from the surface, which means, as he further explains, "The torch never physically contacts the substrate, and the distance maintained determines the time the burning is sustained."

His carving is an incised linear drawing technique that produces an image lighter than the rest of the surface and which therefore appears to float over the top of the surface: look for the dove (visible in the upper right hand corner of the small detail above) from the piece "Searching for Religion at Century's End," which is in the Paul Chojnowski Salon.

He uses sanding to add erasure to his process, particularly for the purpose of adding highlights and as a push-pull way of manipulating the design's three-dimensional aspects (by lightening the burn--in varying amounts--on areas where the blowtorch has passed).

Techniques on paper. For his burning on paper, Paul developed a most interesting technique whereby he uses water as a resist. In order to do that he has to draw 'in blind' with water. In a new series of works on paper that he started in the late 1990's and continued into the early 2000's, Paul again utilized this special technique, described in detail in the following section underneath the next image, which is an example from that series.

Dusk on the Interstate II
by Paul Chojnowski, 2002

Burned and scorched paper, 7.5 in. by 15 in.

Exhibited at University of Arizona Museum of Art, 2002.

Image courtesy of the artist

A Unique and Unforgiving Process

In his foreword to Paul Chojnowski's book, Jerry Cullum, senior editor of Art Papers Magazine, wrote the following description of Paul's remarkable technique:

"This is all rendered in a sequence of sepia tones that lend an air of mystery, not nostalgia. The whole suite looks a bit like high-contrast photography digitally manipulated. What startles us is that it isn't."

"Chojnowski creates all his work by drawing with water on thick paper, which he scorches to the very edge of bursting into flame. . . . These works begin with photographs or charcoal sketches, which are then rendered in water on sturdy sheets of paper, with the light areas soaked intensively and intended dark areas left dry. Intermediate tones, not entirely under Chojnowski's control, are created by partial absorption around deeply saturated patches. The process is an astounding blend of control and accident, all the more remarkable in that Chojnowski is effectively working blind, creating something that remains invisible until the heat's on. [With blowtorches] the paper is raised to the edge of combustibility before being completely immersed in water to stabilize the image."

Three Important Special Exhibits

Of great significance for artists and collectors of pyrographic art are three group shows that took place in 2001 and 2002 in museums in the United States--all focused on burned art.

In spring 2001, Neil Watson curated a large special exhibit called Burn: Artists Play With Fire at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida. The show featured works by Paul Chojnowski and 18 other established and emerging Contemporary artists. When that exhibit closed early June in West Palm Beach, it traveled to the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, South Carolina for a summer showing.

Because of Tucson, Arizona's searing summer temperatures of up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit, Peter Briggs, curator at the University of Arizona Museum of Art began an annual summer tradition of "Hot Art" exhibits to explore heat in its many manifestations, such as radioactivity, oil fields, and the colors red and pink, as well as fire. In 2002, he mounted the fire exhibit, which was entitled Hot Art: Burning Images, featuring more of Paul Chojnowski's works along with works by Andrew Bennett and by John Cage, the famous artist and composer whose works had also been in the Norton and Columbia exhibits.

Pamela Portwood wrote the following description of Paul Chojnowski's works in her 8 August 2002 critique in Smoke and Mirrors on the Hot Art: Burning Images special exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson, Arizona.

"Paul Chojnowski draws his images with a torch on moistened paper. The fire turns the paper into a spectrum of colors from warm sepia to carbon black, depending on how moist the paper is. Although some of his images seem almost abstract, the white circles on the paper of his night scenes resolve into car headlights on an interstate or into city lights in town. The darkness in the distance comes from being seared by fire, but the areas of light have never been touched by fire, the source of light. That is the irony of Chojnowski's images."

Broadway Suite No. 2
by Paul Chojnowski, 2002

Burned and scorched paper, 7.5 in. by 15 in.

Exhibited at University of Arizona Museum of Art, 2002.

Image courtesy of the artist

Creative Pyro Technique Leads to a Grant

A dialogue that was sparked by Paul Chojnowski's pyrographic works at the closing of the show at the Norton Museum in Florida was what led to an artist's grant for the new work that Paul is developing at present. His experiments involve things like works generated by computer and applied to rough, swirly plywood that also has burning plus toymaker dyes and carving.

In closing is this excerpt from the Artist's Statement of his book Paul Chojnowski: Revealed by Fire:

"The blend of fire and water seemed rife with possibility and uncertainty, bringing spontaneity to the process where it had been missing. ... My intention has never been a strictly accurate recording of a place, but rather to capture that unconscious processing of visual stimuli--a glimpse of a scene from the corner of my eye while my attention is focused somewhere else.

I believe that the most compelling images in this body of work are indeed those that drift away from a realistic portrayal of the subject toward a purely rhythmic play of shape, light and form that imply an unconscious state. That said, I remain committed to the basic tenets of western drawing traditions, striving to create a sense of light and space by way of this unique and unforgiving process."

References and Related Items of Interest

Current show Flicker in New York City! At the Jeffrey Coploff Gallery from June 12 to July 25, 2003. If you're going to be in New York, see Paul Chojnowski's work in a group show at: Jeffrey Coploff Fine Art Ltd., 508 West 26th Street, Suite 318, New York, NY 10001. For more information, visit the website at www.jeffreycoploff.com.

View more works on line in the Paul Chojnowski Salon in the E-Museum of Pyrographic Art.

For additional on-line viewing, visit another exhibit of Paul Chojnowski's work at the Macon & Co. Fine Art website. Doug Macon is a private dealer handling Paul's work out of Atlanta, Georgia at tel. 404-641-4875.

* B R E A K I N G * N E W S ! *
In Aspen, Colorado, Living Out Loud is a new gallery currently showing Paul Chojnowski's works in a group exhibition. A new solo exhibition of his works will open with a reception on 31 January 2004. The gallery is located at 525 East Cooper Avenue, Suite 201, Aspen, CO 81611; tel. 970-920-1460; e-mail: livingoutloudgallery@yahoo.com.

New York's Jeffrey Coploff Gallery, where the current group show is, will also mount a solo exhibition of Paul's work in 2004, though no date has been set at this point. For more information, visit the website at www.jeffreycoploff.com.

In Williamstown, Massachusetts, the Plum Gallery will be offering a solo show of Paul's work in August of 2004. For more information and an on-line exhibit of his work, visit the website at www.plumgallery.com.

There is an excellent color catalogue available through the Norton Museum that includes the works of Paul Chojnowski and the many other pyrographic artists featured in the Burn: Artists Play With Fire special exhibit of 2001. It also features essays: one by the writer A. M. Homes entitled "Twice Burned" and another entitled "Close Cover Before Striking" by the curator Neil Watson with comments on the artists and their works. That essay also includes among other illustrations of works by artists from the exhibit, the famous 1961 Cardot photograph of Yves Klein holding an enormous flamethrower to do one of his fire paintings. Learn more about that exhibit and acquiring the catalogue by visiting the website of the Norton Museum in West Palm Beach, Florida, as well as the website of the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, South Carolina where the second showing of that exhibit took place that year.

In 2002, more of Paul Chojnowski's works along with works by Andrew Bennett and John Cage were selected for the Hot Art: Burning Images special exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson, Arizona.

Read Pamela Portwood's entire critique in Smoke and Mirrors on the Hot Art: Burning Images 2002 special exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson, Arizona.

The color book quoted in this article, entitled Paul Chojnowski: Revealed by Fire, features 15 of his works from the nocturne series on paper. It is available through the University of Arizona Museum of 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 seventh year of articles on pyrography for the Woodcarver Online Magazine (WOM), started January 1997, and the sixth 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.

2003, Kathleen M. Garvey Menéndez, all rights reserved.