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by Kathleen Menéndez

Pyrography News From Around the World

Newsletter No. 26, Page Two of Three


Page One:
- Djibril N'Doye: Reflecting on Traditions of Senegal

Page Two:
- Dominic Angarano: Exploring Native American Traditions

Page Three:
- Ilanna Sharon Mandel: A Passion for Art and Peace
- Antique Folk Art of Russia and Austria

Dominic Angarano: Exploring Native American Traditions

Medicine Crow
by Dominic Angarano

Pyrography and incised carving on gourd

From the private collection of Willie Nelson

Image courtesy of the artist

Growing Up With Art

American artist Dominic Angarano from Wood River, Illinois, has been doing art for over thirty years, since he was a youngster growing up in the 1960s. As a young teenager, he enrolled in an art instruction school to take a course through the mail (remember those ads at the back of magazines?). The course proved worthwhile--a student could write to artists for advice, and Dominic corresponded with the late George Schulz of "Peanuts" fame. On his own Dominic took up leather work as well, and his father showed some of his work to a coworker who was an expert in leather work. Recognizing the boy's artistic talent and determination, Dominic's mentor offered him challenges, advice, and encouragement.

In 1973, Dominic was given a full scholarship to the Silver Mine School of Art in Norwalk, Connecticut, which he attended for a year. He later enrolled in the Greenwich School of Art in Greenwich, Connecticut from which he graduated in 1983. His courses of study included painting, drawing still lifes, life drawing, and some sculpture.

Dominic was already doing well competing and exhibiting at local fairs selling drawings, paintings, jewelry, and carvings. He was also selling his paintings at a furniture store on consignment.

In late 1997 came a turning point when for the first time at an art and music fair and farmers market, Dominic came upon an artist demonstrating pyroengraving on gourds.

Sitting Bull, detail
by Dominic Angarano

Pyrography and carving on a 6-inch banana gourd tied with rawhide
and adorned with colored thread, a turned wooden bead, and a feather
The inside of the gourd is lined with beeswax

Image courtesy of the artist

Interpreting Native American Themes on Gourds

Dominic felt an instant connection when he saw the gourds. In the course of a nice conversation with the artist, his enthusiasm grew. She was very encouraging and sold Dominic some plain gourds to try for himself.

Dominic had given his son a simple pyro tool that heated only to a very low temperature, perhaps 350 degrees. It was similar to one he had had as a child himself but never really explored. Suddenly the idea was compelling, but that was not all.

For Dominic, pyroengraving on gourds went hand in hand with Native American themes, and he developed an intense interest in researching many Native American peoples and their cultures.

Dominic's interest was in relating directly to these people. He feels that some of his predecessors of about a hundred years ago, like the very famous photographer Edward Curtis, believed that the Native American peoples would soon be extinct, and their goal was to record these tribes for history. For their purposes, they often had their subjects pose in staged scenes and elaborate dress. Dominic's goal is simply to understand, to record accurately, and to capture the spirit of his individual subjects, their authentic emotions and expressions.

When live models are unavailable, his modus operandi consists in studying and adapting photographs of his subjects and portraying them in natural poses and authentic activities. He works lovingly with the gourds, drawing directly on the gourd surface with his pyro pen, then finishing and doing ornamentation and special effects as appropriate to the project at hand.

Scrimshaw Sailing Ship, detail
by Dominic Angarano

Scrimshaw pyrography on hippo tooth
carved to the size and shape of a whale's tooth
and mounted on a driftwood base finished to look like shiny rock

Image courtesy of the artist

Inspired by Scrimshaw

The exotic scrimshaw (above) began as an enormous hippo tooth Dominic bought to experiment with. The original tooth, he remembers, was between 12 and 14 inches tall. The scrimshaw shown in a detail above at about 6 inches tall is just the top part.

When he began this project, Dominic wasn't sure what to expect. He knew he wanted to improve the finish, which was dark in color, uneven, and heavily lined, so he started sanding it. When it proved to be incredibly hard, he used a Dremel tool to sand it. After some time he realized that what was on top--the outer surface--was actually the enamel of the tooth, and inside was the layer of ivory that he was hoping for. Even working with the Dremel tool, it took him three weeks just to sand off all the enamel and reveal the ivory.

Because he wanted to use the ivory for a scrimshaw motif, Dominic decided to carve the tooth to resemble the size and shape of a whale's tooth in keeping with the scrimshaw tradition. For the base, he found a piece of driftwood, carved it to the desired shape, and finished it with a shiny polyurethane to resemble a sea rock.

Dominic took great pride in accurately portraying his sailing ship in detailed pyrography, including the ship's wooden bird masthead. His painstaking work on this most unusual project made for a striking piece, which can also be seen in full view in the E-Museum.

Pullman Conductor, detail
by Dominic Angarano

Pyrography on elephant ivory knife handle

Reverse shows a train
pulling into a train station

Image courtesy of the artist

Exotic Materials and Challenging Projects

Since his discovery of gourds as a surface material and pyrography as a technique, Dominic admits that his artistic endeavors sometimes border on the obssessive. As you can see in these images (and additional examples in the E-Museum), Dominic was not satisfied only with gourds, which are considered exotic by many. Even when working with gourds, he would often add an extra dimension of challenge to his projects by adding not only details like the beeswax lining of the gourd itself or the rawhide and feather ornaments shown on the Sitting Bull example earlier, but also lighting effects from inside. On one, he actually opened a very small hole through which he worked to produce a painted pyro image on the interior wall, and then, using the same small hole, later added a tiny light inside to illuminate it; afterwards he provided a tiny viewing hole as an element of the exterior design.

Through a dealer on the west coast of the United States who imports exotic things from South Africa, Dominic obtained among other things the hippo tooth shown earlier. He also has used elephant ivory (see the knife with the pullman conductor pyroengraving above) that is 60 to 75 years old (predating the ban on that material). Through a dealer in Alaska, who consults the University of Alaska to date his exotic materials, Dominic has obtained walrus ivory and bone (oosik) that he has used for other projects, such as the knife handle below and another in the E-Museum (and also in a small image at the bottom of this page), which is a knife with a pyroengraved handle of walrus bone depicting a killer whale; it comes with its leather sheath, which he stitched and then adorned with colorful beads. He once tried pryoengraving the face of Jesus on an ostrich egg, which with some effort was successful. However, he notes that the eggshell draws the heat out of the pen, making this work unsatisfactory as a technique. Other challenging materials he has worked on include moose antlers and the fossilized jaw bone of a buffalo estimated to be 40,000 years old.

Crazy Horse Drum
by Dominic Angarano

Pyrography on gourd drum

Image courtesy of the artist

Portrait of Crazy Horse

About the gourd drum and mallet and his depiction of Crazy Horse, Dominic says that his is a portrait of invention. There is only one known photograph said to be of Crazy Horse, he explained, but its authenticity has been questioned. Dominic's portrait is his own idea, based on his research, of what Crazy Horse may have looked like. The other images on the gourd--an American Bald Eagle, lightning, a horse, and a snake (not all are visible in the picture)--were added not only for artistic reasons but for historic ones. It is said, Dominic recounts, that Crazy Horse, before his encounter with General Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn, drew these four images and pronounced the words, "Today is a good day to die."

Tiger Knife, detail
by Dominic Angarano

Pyrography on walrus bone

Dominic says, "The handle is oosik,
which is the penile bone of a walrus
(This bone sometimes grows to 28 inches long.
There is a poem Ode to Oosik that says
in part, that's why the walrus looks sad
but is actually smiling.)
It is very old; it has been in the ground
and picks up the minerals--that's why it's brown
Sometimes they are other colors, as well. If it
were not old, it would be very white."

Image courtesy of the artist

Technical Aspects

Tools and supplies. Dominic Angarano works primarily with a simple soldering iron tool for his pyroengraving. However, to accommodate the many other effects and techniques required for his challenging and often multi-faceted projects, he employs whatever tool or tools do the job at hand at any given time, such as carving tools and a Dremel for sanding. Dominic employs a lot of carved details in his pyrographic work, especially on gourds because incised lines on a gourd surface create highlights when the light inner layer of the gourd is exposed to contrast with the darker outer layer.

Coloring and finishing. He will often use swatches of a color wash, especially white, for certain effects. Where a natural sealer or finish is called for, he uses beeswax. For his shiny finishes, he uses multiple coats of water-based polyurethane with UV protection to prevent fading. For a final polishing using natural wax, he uses a potter's technique of rubbing the gourd surface with a shell to produce a shine, which is then buffed with leather.

Safety and health considerations. Dominic notes that many of his projects require good ventilation, protective eyeglasses, and a face mask. His studio is an airy sunroom at the back of his house where he can isolate from the rest of the house any unpleasant odors emanating from certain materials as they are burned. A good dust collection system is also important for this type of work.

There Is No One Home
by Dominic Angarano

Pyroengraving and white wash on gourd "tobacco box"

Image courtesy of the artist

Story of the Tobacco Box

Dominic thinks of his canteen gourd above entitled There Is No One Home, as a "tobacco box." To his pyroengraving of a Native American, he painted a white wash in the background to create the illusion of a fog. The story he portrays is that of a man being forced to leave his land. Eyes all around belong to ancestral chiefs who can no longer help.

Closing Notes

Dominic discovered pyroengraving on gourds in late 1997 and went to work with wild enthusiasm. By March 1998, when he exhibited at a fair in Indiana, his gourds took one second place ribbon, two first place ribbons, and a ribbon for best in category.

From there, it was on to more gourds, more research, more and still more unusual materials, and more complicated projects. He is thinking he has to slow down, but for the time being he hasn't figured out quite how to do that.

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