Fire birds: Sweet!

Cynthia Longhat-Adams, whose avian art will be featured at the Lincoln City Cultural Center, says she was drawn to pyrography because she loves problem-solving

The Lincoln City Cultural Center takes wing Friday when its annual bird-themed show, …a thing with feathers, opens with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. in the PJ Chessman Gallery. Visitors – wearing masks and practicing social distancing – can visit the gallery from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesday.

Featured artists in the show are sculptor and painter Robert Schlegel; painter, sculptor and printmaker Marilyn Burkhardt; multimedia artist Cheri Aldrich; and, working in a medium many may not be familiar with, pyrographer — or fire painter — Cynthia Longhat-Adams. Pyrographers use heat and tools to create art on a variety of surfaces, including wood, paper, and glass.

We talked with the Depoe Bay artist about the ancient art and her passion for it. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.

“Brown Pelican” is among Cynthia Longhat-Adams’ pyrography birds.

Let’s start with the basics. What is pyrography?

Longhat-Adams: It’s very, very ancient. It started in Turkey and Germany. They would take a hot poker out of the fire and draw on wood with it. It’s taken on a new emergence in the 21st century. I’ve been doing it for 15 years.

How did it become your medium of choice?

I’ve been a creator all of my life in many, many mediums. There are new burning tools, basically a pen, that allow a consistent temperature. You couldn’t do the work I do with the old clunky wood-burning tools. I was introduced to these new tools about 15 years ago. The new tools are so much easier to handle; you don’t burn your hand off. It just took my heart. I love everything about it.

Other than the electrified pen, what other tools do you use?

The pen plugs into a machine that controls it, powers it. I work with wood and 100 percent cotton watercolor paper. I invented another method in the past five years that is a whole different way: I’m not using the machine. I paint with milk onto my paper and then I take a torch to it and the milk will burn very fast. It’s pretty darned dynamic. I’m really loving playing with that now.

The paper doesn’t catch fire?

No, it doesn’t just burst into flames. I use 140- to 300-pound paper. It’s harder to burn than the wood. I have to turn up the heat to get the same effects on paper as I do on wood.

How is pyrography different from other mediums?

It’s unique: the texture, the smell, and the just way that it draws out. It’s different from any other medium. There’s that specialness it offers.

Drawing with a pencil has been my favorite medium all of my life. That’s probably why this attracts me. It’s very much like that. When I am drawing with a burning pen rather than a pencil, it’s slower; it takes a lot more patience. You’re still building up your layers — the darks and lights.

For me, because I love doing photorealism, I’m into the detail so deeply. That’s what keeps me going. I love watching it come to life. There’s just a whole different look and feel. It actually made my art better using the burning tool.

Eagle totem by Cynthia Longhat-Adams
Some of the birds in Cynthia Longhat-Adams’ work are symbolic, such as this eagle totem.

What are your preferred subjects?

I have been through many different subjects, from coastal wildlife to leopards. I’ve been doing a lot of birds, pelicans, and herons. Those are very challenging.

How so?

When you look really closely, each one has a different texture on their beaks, their feathers flow a different way. I can look at each picture and tell you what the challenge was, and they are all different.

Wood is always a challenge because of the grain. I did an oak wine barrel once and it turned out fantastic, but there was the challenge of getting the grain of the oak. Glass is a challenge. I always look for something that is going to be a challenge. I love problem solving.

You are known for intricate detail. How has that evolved?

My mom was really an innovator; she taught me problem-solving, critical thinking. She taught me how to shadow with crayons. That was the first real introduction to what art can become. I just practiced throughout the years, took art classes through high school and excelled quickly. If you have a love for something, you’re drawn to practice. I love to draw; I really love to draw. I’ve been doing a lot of painting … watercolor, acrylic. I use those here and there. But it’s not the thing that grabs my heart. Drawing is the thing that grabs my heart.

How do you get the color?

I add it after I have completed the burn: with watercolor, if on paper, and inks or colored pencil, if on wood. Inks are great for both paper and wood, actually, very vibrant and you can tint the burn just a little.

Are you self-taught?

Yes. I like to call it “self-learn” because I can’t teach myself something I don’t know. I have to learn it first.

Do you work with live subjects or photos?

Cynthia Longhat-Adams based her Atlantic puffin on a photo taken by a friend at the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

I used to buy a lot of stock photos. Sometimes friends offer up pictures as well. The puffin is the perfect example of that. My friend went to the Oregon Coast Aquarium and took that picture.

How much time does a single piece take?

On a 12-by-12, 80 to 100 hours, sometimes more.

What is the reaction from people when they see your work for the first time?  

It’s all over the place. Most people have no idea what they are looking at. They think it’s a photograph sometimes. Almost never do they really have the concept of what it is. Sometimes they have to touch it because it looks so three dimensional.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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