Marsha Wilson figured if she was going to make a living as an artist, she needed to specialize in a medium that was unique. After trying her hand at crochet, cross-stitch, quilting and woodworking, she finally found her niche in pyrography, burning designs into leather, wood and paper.
“Pyrography is literally writing with fire. It’s just a little bit fancier of a term,” she said.
Wilson discovered pyrography about 10 years ago, after some time spent in woodworking. She was homeschooling her five daughters, and her time was being split between working out in her shop and supervising lessons in the house.
“When I picked up the wood burner, I could do that at the table with them, and so it fit my life a little bit better,” she said. “I told myself I was gonna stick to woodburning until I mastered it, and I haven’t mastered it yet. It’s still challenging. It’s still fun.”
She uses two tools to do the woodburning. A Walnut Hollow Versa-Tool — similar to a soldering iron — contains a heating element that heats a brass tip “that gets hot and stays hot,” she said. The Versa-Tool is a “workhorse” that she’s used since she got into pyrography. It’s used to make outlines and other broad strokes. Wilson also uses a wire-tip burner for delicate details and shading.
When she’s burning on wood, Wilson said she prefers to use Baltic birch plywood that’s readily available at home improvement stores. And she uses vegetable-tanned cowhide or Bristol board paper for other projects. Burning on paper, she said, is not as delicate as it sounds.
“Bristol board is smooth, and it gives me a much whiter surface to start with, therefore my shading can vary much more than wood,” Wilson said.
Most of Wilson’s projects begin with a photograph. She uses graphite paper to trace the image onto whatever medium she’s using, and then she begins the burning process.
“I bounce back and forth between flowers, buildings, people, objects,” she said. “It’s usually the more dramatic the shading, the better. Buildings are one of my favorite topics. And the architecture of Waco was one of the things that really drew me. I love actually getting lost in Waco because I find new buildings that I admire all the time.”
One piece of Wilson’s art that showcases her artistry in depicting architecture is on display and available at Cultivate 7Twelve in Downtown Waco. It’s a big piece — 4 feet by 3.5 feet — and is of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, and it’s incredibly detailed. It shows Notre Dame from the back and captures a scene of Parisian daily life.
“You’ve got people fishing on the riverbank,” Wilson said. “You’ve got the steamship coming in for landing. You’ve got workmen back here, and one’s about to prepare lunch over an open fire. You’ve got the lady with her parasol coming back from shopping. You got a milkmaid here with her two milk buckets over her shoulder. Then as your eyes travel up, you see the beautiful, graceful cathedral. And everything about the cathedral is pointing your eyes up to the spire, literally up to God. It encompasses absolutely everything about the human experience.”