When Melissa Burns – also known as “Girlwood” in the art world – tells people her art medium is woodburning, there are a lot of questions.
“Like you throw your art into the fire?”
“Are you a pyro?”
Burns understands the concept of creating art by burning images and designs into pieces of wood like others draw on canvas is unconventional.
When she first started putting fire to wood, she searched for a teacher or even a book. She found one at Hobby Lobby, but it was more about ornamentation or decoration. There was another online. It wasn’t much help, either.
So Burns set out to teach herself how to use fire and wood to create a piece of art. Where other artists may have thousands of colors and hundreds of brushes available, she has something that looks kind of like a soldering iron with three different tips and a couple of torches.
The elements are basic – wood and fire. The tools are minimal, some torches and an iron. You can’t undo what the flames char.
“It’s like painting with fire,” Burns said. “It’s not forgiving at all.”
Don’t bother pointing out the irony of her name, Melissa Burns.
“It’s just a weird coincidence,” Burns said. “I ask people all the time, ‘Is your name John Mechanic?’”
Girlwood is a name she adopted because it seemed to best fit what she does – a simple match for an artform that is so straightforward. Girlwood just kind of came into being and stuck, much like how Burns started practicing woodburning.
Artist – that’s a term she’s still not comfortable with.
She didn’t start out making art. She picked up a woodburning pen by coincidence.
It was after her father, Tim Williams, died five years ago that she rediscovered the woodburning pen he gave her. It was one of the several things he had given her to encourage her artistic bent – something he could see but she just couldn’t. And still can’t to some degree.
“I mean it’s not that I am totally detached, but if all my art went into a fire, I wouldn’t feel as if my life’s work was gone,” Burns said.
She picked up woodburning as something to do as she took a few months off, mourning the loss of her father, regrouping.
Woodburning was a good fit for someone who eschews the frills of art, but embraces the idea of holding a torch just far enough away to get a shade so slight you almost have to put your nose up to the wood to see it.
Growing up, when her sisters were off doing other things, she was helping her father, who worked as a general contractor.
“That was always more appealing than Barbies,” Burns said. “I’m not a tomboy, but I’m not a girly girl.”
When she picked up the woodburning tool, she made a few pictures and was amazed when people offered to buy her work. That really wasn’t the point. It was just something to do, a new challenge.
“My dad had always encouraged me growing to become an artist, and I told him, ‘That’s stupid. I need to make money,’” Burns said.
She doesn’t buy the thought that somewhere, somehow her father sees everything she’s created. Instead, she credits woodburning for teaching her lessons that he might have; she can feel his guiding hand as she forces herself to stick with the art, even when the wood is so terribly unforgiving.
She didn’t know what to do with the crying woman in Livingston.
A woman had stopped by her booth and looked at one of her woodburnings and started to tear up.
Burns asked if something was wrong or she needed help.
The scene was Burns’ take on a World War II propaganda poster from England which showed bombers and a factory. She’s still not sure what triggered the emotion. She didn’t ask.
“I don’t know what to do with crying people,” Burns said. “I am always amazed that my work means more to those who see it. In general, I don’t get art. I just do what I want to do. People get it or not. I just have to get it out of my brain.”
She’s taken on no apprentices, interns or even help. That’s because she’s still learning a craft for which there is literally no guide or master.
There is no one to tell her that some woods are tough – like bloodwood, which doesn’t shade well; its dense fiber and oils make it smear. There’s also pine, birch and cedar – softer woods that take a slight char.
“I love cedar because it smells good and shades well,” Burns said. “This is like painting with fire. I had to learn to paint with a torch.”
Her latest works move away from the intricate line drawings almost reminiscent of scrimshaw or other carving. Now shadows and shading replace cross-hatching. A recent series of four Native American leaders are textured portraits that bear a wonderful similarity to a sepia-toned vintage photograph. And yet, the wood’s unique grain, just below the surface, give them an original feel with an understated depth.
The next lesson for Burns to learn as she plays the role of teacher and student through trial and error is three-dimensional design.
At first she was insulted, but now it’s a point of pride. She applied to be part of a summer art festival in a nearby town. She sent examples of the woodburning to the festival's organizers.
The organizers asked for more pictures. Then they started asking more questions: What programs did she use? What printers burned the image onto the wood?
“What machines, they asked,” Burns said. “I can barely run my email.”
They said they would have to pass on letting her have a booth because event attendees and vendors like handmade items.
“They just didn’t believe me that I could do this to wood,” Burns said. “But beyond growing the trees, everything else I do by hand. I sand the wood and prepare it. I have fire and wood. That’s all I need.”