(Fay Helfer interviewed by Ina Mar)
What exactly is this material?
I gather and experiment with readily available fruit, vegetables, plants, and spices from around me. Anything natural and colourful such as blueberries, red cabbage, red onions, ivy leaves and berries, pomegranate, turmeric, beets…
How do you produce it? What preparations do you have to take before using the material?
When I make dishes with foods like red onions, cabbage, and beets, I save the outer layers and skins (which tend to have the most colour) for later preparation. For blueberries, I’ve found that boiling only the skins produces the best result as well. I boil and simmer them (individually), for at least 30 minutes, or until a deep colour is achieved.
What can you tell us about the conservation of this material? Have you noticed any changes in time (eg. hue, texture, intensity)?
I’ve been using vinegar and clove oil to preserve the pigments so they don’t grow mold. Although, I’ve noticed that the colours can change drastically over time, from batch to batch, wood to wood, and especially wet to dry. Red cabbage sometimes turns green, or pink when vinegar is added. It can look deep purple when wet, but then can dry a very light blue. For the most part, I do test strips on pieces of wood first, but a lot of times it’s more fun and interesting to have unexpected results.
When did you start using this material?
About a year ago. It’s all an ongoing experimentation, and i’m excited to learn a lot more and hear ideas through this group!
What supports do you use? How do you apply the material on the support?
I mostly use brushes on wood, smudge with my fingers a lot, and always keep a rag in hand to dab, wipe, or blend.
Do you also purchase conventional art supplies? Which conventional materials do you usually mix or use together with this material?
I also use pyrography to achieve solid lines and a dark contrast to the pigment washes. Mine is a regular ‘wall lenk’ wood burning pen with standard nib. For white and other colours I can’t achieve, I grind up pastel and add water, painting with it so that it stains the wood, instead of just sitting on the surface. At the end, I use a fixatif and/or polyurethane to seal and protect the artwork, though I am now looking into other natural alternatives for that as well.
How did the idea occur to you to use this material?
The idea developed over time through a combination of inspiration from the magic of childhood crafts, nature and sustainability, necessity and experimentation.
Why did you choose this material?
I started doing pyrography 2 years ago, on a nostalgic whim, because it reminded me of a woodburning kit my grandparents gave me as a child. I‘ve always loved the permanence of burn marks on wood, it’s almost like a tattoo. I then started to add colour to my work, but quickly found that paints didn’t work for me. Besides just lying on top of the surface (and covering the burn marks), burning on top of paint is very toxic, which lead me to look for natural solutions in my kitchen and garden.
Can you explain more about your technique or procedure?
After picking out a piece of wood, I consider the grain and any designs naturally found in it. I like to have reference and inspiration around me to draw out the composition in pencil first. I then burn in a light line drawing with the woodburner, and erase (and sand smooth) any pencil marks. I then layer washes of the different hues, waiting for it to dry between layers. Another pass of pyrography comes next, burning in all the darkest darks, and finally, I usually end with white highlight touches.
First pass of burning with reference and materials used.
Adding colour. I like re-using food containers as paint palettes (this was Mochi ice-cream)
For this piece, I wanted to use the 3 primary colours and only mixes of them. From left to right (bottom): Turmeric (yellow), Beet and pomegranate blend (red), Moroccan pigment (blue). The top row is orange, green, and purple (secondary colours made from mixing the bottom three)
(Process) Asparagus Heart, at stages of completion.
(Final) Asparagus Heart, pyrography, natural pigments, and pastel on cradled Birch panel ~ 10” x 22”
What other uncommon materials would you like to experiment with?
I’d like to keep on experimenting and finding new pigments from uncommon materials such as walnut husks and avocado skins, and also include more minerals, natural earth and ocher pigments.
Do you ever say to yourself, “What the fuck am I doing?” If so, what do you do to get past it?
On a daily basis! Especially while doing something like spitting out blueberry skins to later boil and paint with. I’ve had many failed attempts, but knowing what doesn’t work only helps to assess what will. It’s always a fun and interesting process, win or fail, and what keeps me going is the excitement of trying new things with unexpected results.