Burning beauty: The art of pyrography

Burning beauty: The art of pyrography

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The Coconino National Forest is part of the largest contiguous stand of ponderosa pine trees in the world. The trees loom large and tall, in various shapes and sizes, uninterrupted from New Mexico to the Grand Canyon. It’s surreal that this little mountain town is situated in such a beautiful place unlike any other.

Local artist Ashley Matelski takes her love for nature to new heights by placing her creativity on wood from local trees. Her medium is pyrography, or wood burning, in which a heated metallic stylus or soldering pen is used to etch designs into wood. It is one of the oldest forms of art, having been around since the dawn of recorded history. Matelski combines these wood burning methods with watercolor pigments to create her unique works.

“I take mostly natural pieces of wood, trying to keep them as natural as possible. The rule is ‘dead and down,’ so I’m never going out and cutting trees or anything like that,” Matelski says. “If I find a cool stick I’ll throw it in the back of my truck and see if I can work with it. A lot of my friends will find wood on their property or donate it to me if they’re taking a tree down themselves.”

Matelski began her praxis four years ago when she received a wood burning kit as a gift. Her line drawing skills translated nicely to burning wood. Matelski sands down each piece of wood until it’s smooth enough to easily sketch on. The artist recommends beginning with a pen or pencil sketch before moving to wood burning. Patience, too, has been an important practice for her.

“It’s a very tedious art. When I first started, I found myself very frustrated. I’d be so far into this project that I started and my hand would move ever so slightly. I felt like the whole thing was ruined and then I’d take a deep breath and tell myself I could sand it down,” Matelski says. “I’d take a deep breath and remind myself it wasn’t totally ruined. I’ve just taken the time to be OK with my mistakes.

“Sometimes I’ll take hours or days and sometimes weeks burning a simple line drawing on a piece of wood. Then I go in with watercolor to add depth and contrast in my painting and to keep that grain. Then afterwards, I take some kind of [varnish] to it. You’ll put a few coats on that and the color will stay,” Matelski says.

Matelski has also worked in several outdoor occupations, and draws a lot of her inspiration from surrounding nature. Her work often features northern Arizona plant varieties and landscapes.

“I find a lot of comfort when I’m outside. It’s like a therapy for me. It does so much for the mind and body,” Matelski says.

This act of finding peace outdoors conjures the Japanese practice shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, in which immersing oneself in nature is considered a form of therapy. The process is very simple and can be recreated locally. After walking around a section of our ponderosa pine forest for a while, feel yourself relax. The practice has been shown to reduce stress hormones, lower blood pressure and boost the immune system.

In a study conducted at the University of Utah, creative problem solving improved by 50 percent over the course of three days for those who forest bathed. Being in nature can help people unleash creativity, something that might be helpful for those interested in trying their hand at pyrography. Suddenly, as is the case for Matelski, a walk in the forest can become a source for your next art project.

Matelski has also explored different types of canvases beyond just tree remnants.

“It’s a really good way to do recycled art,” she says. “I’ve been doing a lot of boat work with people giving me oars. Sometimes I have folks give me oars that are raw and then they’ll seal it themselves. It’s quite sustainable.”

Reduce, reuse and recycle, as the saying goes. Pyrography can serve as a way to reuse a wide range of materials by beautifying them. Flagstaff has hosted a recycled art show for the past 18 years, and in 2019  the HeArt Box gallery hosted local artists, including Matelski, showcasing their recycled and upcycled art as part of Rebirth: A Recycled Art Show.

When it comes to her work, the reuse of materials and pyrography in general, Matelski stresses the importance of that which surrounds.

“I hope people find beauty in what I see and it inspires them to go outside and expand on their comfort zone," she says.

Margarita Cruz holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University. She serves on the Northern Arizona Book Festival board and as editor-in-chief for Thin Air Magazine. Her work has been featured in The Tunnels and Susquehanna Review, among others.

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