- Introducing Susan M. Millis, Artist and Conservator
-- First the Discovery of Fire . . . Art
-- Art, History, and Conservation Intertwined
-- Inspiration from History
-- A Gallery Artist on a Quest
-- The 1990s and an Avant-Garde Inspiration
-- Formal Studies
-- Fading: The Problem Defined
-- Further Research at The Pinto Collection
- The Pinto Collection: Important 19th C. Pyrographic Artists
- Antique Works in Private Collections
-- 19th C. Artist Ralph Marshall
-- Robert Ball Hughes (1806-1868)
--- Studying an Unsigned Ball Hughes Work
--- More Works by Ball Hughes Emerge
---- Babylonian Lions
---- General Grant Proclaiming the Surrender of Richmond
---- The Last Lucifer Match
---- The Monk
- Final Notes
- References and Related Items of Interest
- Maria Luisa Grimani: "A Tree's Tale"
- From Sao Paulo, Adriano Colangelo Lectures on Art and Life
- Review of New Book by Daniel Wright
- For Halloween: Tim Rahman's The Witch's Secret
British artist Susan Millis lives in Lincolnshire, England
with her husband and their son and daughter.
She had never heard of pyrography until sometime during 1980 or 1981 when by chance, while watching the British children's television program "Blue Peter" with her young son Luke, she saw a demonstration of the technique. She remembers that, although she had been drawing and painting in various media for years, it was at that time in her life when she was looking for another form of artistic expression. Fascinated by the pyrography demonstration, she searched for details and tools and by the time she had finished her first piece--a portrait of a lion executed on a wood panel taken from an old sideboard--she knew she was 'hooked'.
Two of the three pieces in her series entitled Rare Breeds
are shown above. It is important to realize that these little images,
unlike the rest on this page, are very close in size to the actual size
of Susan's paperweights on wood.
The miniature applied art works she has created on all these small spheres and those in her salon in the E-Museum are remarkable for their delicate nuances, close attention to detail, originality of composition, 3-dimensional effect, and depth of field. Particularly delightful is the trompe l'oeil impression on some that you are looking deep into what is actually a convex surface.
As you will see from her own words, it is clear that it would be
difficult to separate a story about Susan Millis and her art from one
about Susan Millis and her research into historic pyrography and
ultimately from one about her and her study of the conservation and
restoration of pyrographic works. Her obvious passion for the art form
intertwined all three of her interests practically from the start. Here
is what Susan has to say about the beginning of her artistic career in
pyrography and a couple of important related aspects:
"Although I worked in this technique purely for the pleasure it gave, by 1985, I had become noticed by the London-based art societies and my paperweights were sought after. Shortly after my success, however, I discovered quite by chance that the [burning] technique faded. The realisation of this fact led me to contact various varnish suppliers in the search for a better wood coating, and I began to conduct my own experiments. It also saw the start of my research into pyrographic history. However, being totally smitten, I could not give up practicing the technique, and my success as an artist continued to grow."
"In 1988," she recounts, "I visited the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery
(BM&AG) for the first time by appointment to see Edward and Eva
Pinto's collection of nineteenth century panels. At that time, I
was hoping to write a book on pyrography and was allowed access to the
whole collection. I was absolutely in awe of these nineteenth
century masterpieces, and the knowledge of their existence fuelled my
inspiration to continue with my own art."
That same year, the magazine Popular Crafts commissioned Susan to write an article. "A Burning Art" was published in the May 1989 edition of the magazine.
Images of the Past
Also by 1988, Susan had begun to add a warning to the base of her works:
Keep out of sunlight. However, after a time she came to
realize that not only sunlight affected them but also visible
light. Moreover, in the ensuing years of her career in art, she
came to realize that another principal cause of the fading had to do
with the composition of the wood itself. This discovery led to
another stage in her quest:
"For several years, I was a gallery artist at Francis Iles in Rochester, Kent, and I sold a great many works through them. . . [During that time] my research into history had located six oriental works on paper in the Victoria & Albert Museum. This knowledge initiated my early pyrographs on paper. I thought the results might be more stable, especially when framed under conservation glass."
Sunset of a Dying Race
It was during the 1990s that Susan learned of Yves Klein
(1928-1962)--one of the founding members of the French Nouveaux
Réalistes artists. Soon afterwards her Fire
Paintings were born, named for those works of his produced with
Susan shared this singular quote of Yves Klein's that she considers sums up the artist's philosophy on painting with fire:
"And I believe that fire burns in the heart of the void as well as in the heart of man."
Morning Reflections, partial view
"I was getting nowhere with my research and experiments into the
fading problem. A letter from Mark Vine of Conservation Resources (UK)
Limited prompted me to study for a BA Honours degree in Conservation and
Restoration. During my three years there at De Montfort University,
Lincoln, U.K., I came to understand the problems of light
"I also came to understand how little professionals knew about the technique. My third year dissertation was "The Classification and identification of pyrographic techniques: a guide for museums and conservators."
"As an artist, Susan says, I have learned that pyrography can be
accepted as fine art--it is judged on what you produce not on your
method of making it."
For her own pyrography, Susan works very slowly and gently. She is concerned that to make these works naturally more light resistant would mean having to execute them with a much hotter point and faster technique. She fears that the beautiful and varied shades of brown that are her hallmark would be a thing of the past.
>From a scientific perspective, Susan summarizes the challenges that most artists and especially pyrographers face in regard to fading. "There may well be a wood coating being manufactured today," she says, "that will offer good protection in ultraviolet light, but two things must be remembered:
1. Pyrography fades in visible light, which means that it is affected by light waves in the middle of the visible spectrum, at a wavelength of about 500-550 nanometers. It is the blue light in the visible spectrum that is the most dangerous after ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet resistance will only offer protection to wavelengths up to a maximum of 400 nanometers, if that.
2. Any wood coating, acrylic sheeting, or film with an ultraviolet barrier can only offer protection for a maximum of, say, ten years before it becomes saturated and breaks down itself. However, there is no doubt that any surface decoration on an organic substrate is severely damaged by ultraviolet rays particularly, and any protection against this, even for a short period of time, is better than none. Furthermore, pyrography fades more from, say, a light coloured wood like sycamore than it does from leather. I have also noticed that one type of wood will react differently than another."
A Wash and Brush Up
In 2002, Susan revisited the Pinto Collection at BM&AG, and, thanks to Curator of Human History Sylvia Crawley, who is currently responsible for the Pinto Collection there, Susan was able to study the pyrographs under magnification. She also studied the technique in other collections of historic objects: those made from leather, velvet, ivory, and paper. She used magnified images of some of these objects to make an identification chart where they could be examined next to samples she herself had made. By writing this dissertation, Susan hoped to draw academic attention to the technique, which ultimately would make it more acceptable as a method of fine art.
2004, Kathleen M. Garvey Menéndez, all rights reserved.