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Burned by Bernstein

by Amy Kingsley

Marc Bernstein reaches over a work-in-progress and grabs an implement ‘— black with shallow curves and a pointed nib ‘— that looks a bit like a vintage stylus, except there’s no inkwell, just wires tying the device to a squat power unit. The instrument sears the piece it touches. He’s tracing waves lightly outlined on a piece of birch with a wood-burning tool, an art form known as pyrography.

‘“It’s not a term I made up,’” Bernstein says. ‘“There is a craft of pyrography, but it’s mostly ‘World’s Greatest Grandma’ plaques, pictures of bald eagles and cigar boxes. The term literally means ‘fire drawing.””

Bernstein is rescuing the ancient medium from its kitschy fate, and the piece lying on the table is an example of fine art rendered in this unique style. It’s a realistic depiction of six water-skiers enjoying their summer recreation.

The artist has retraced about half the pen lines with the burning tool, transforming them into thick brown outlines. I run my hand over the furrowed wood.

Pyrography descended from a tradition of fire art that includes branding, poker art and wood burning. Bernstein discovered it as a student at Guilford College, when Professor Roy Nydorf assigned his drawing class to redo a previous assignment in an unconventional medium. He headed to the art supply store with the notion to do needlepoint when he stumbled onto a wood burning kit. That was in 2000; since then he’s shown his pyrographs all over the Triad.

‘“Keeping the Free in Freak’” is one of the pieces that’s shown around town, but today it’s leaning against Bernstein’s living room wall. Its subject is his mom’s friend’s daughter, a woman named Karma who’s mugging for the camera, a fake boa constrictor draped around her neck.

Bernstein works from photographs, and he took that one at Coney Island, after a German camera crew had posed Karma. They plucked her from the crowd because they liked her look, an outward manifestation of winsome eccentricities. She has an engaging face, Bernstein says.

‘“There’s something about people and their faces that can tell you a lot about them,’” he says. ‘“Pictures with people are something I gravitate toward in art.’”

Another titled ‘“Outstanding People’” features a middle-aged trio in conservative dress drinking bottled beer, each face an achievement in deadpan. Lighter hues in the wood above a backdrop of denuded trees gives the impression of cloud cover. The man in the photo, flanked by two women, is the uncle of an ex-girlfriend who showed Marc the picture. The personality of the subjects caught his eye.

Those personalities, and the satisfaction he gets from engaging in interesting pieces of art, keeps him working despite the slow pace and the frequent burns.

‘“I’m constantly asking myself why I do this,’” he says. ‘“There’s a part of me that feels like there’s medicine in that pause where you’re interacting with the piece, when you can stop for a second and relate to an object that might be outside your normal experience.’”

He lists some of his influences: Ron English, artist Chuck Close, painter Julie Heffernan, and graphic designer Shepard Fairey (Bernstein’s former babysitter). But not all the art that informs his work comes from the last century. Bernstein mentions classical realism alongside the others, a movement of the 1800s that brought art back to real world subjects.

‘“During that time art became a public thing,’” he says. ‘“And the realist movement had a real down-to-earth style.’”

His own art has been a pretty public thing of late. Since the beginning of the year he’s had work showing around town every week. Many of those pieces left galleries in consumers’ hands, a welcome development but one that’s got him back to the drawing board working on new ones.

He sets aside at least three hours of studio time every other day. Sometimes more. In his two-story abode, the middle room of the shotgun style ground floor serves as a workspace. Finished pyrographs and paintings adorn his walls alongside an illuminated manuscript, shelves of bric-a-brac and assorted art supplies.

On his fireplace mantle ‘— a space traditionally reserved for such a display ‘— is a Bernstein family portrait. The piece, however, bucks convention in both its presentation in the pyrographic medium and the family members’ gleeful flipping of the collective bird. A very young Marc is seated on the floor in the middle, holding up his index finger in misunderstanding. Looking at it, he reflects on the art of pyrography.

‘“It’s really a ridiculous medium,’” Bernstein says. ‘“It would probably take me up to 100 hours at least to complete a piece. I use pictures because you can’t really have someone sit for that long.’”

Understanding the wood, much of which is salvaged, is a significant part of the artistic process. Grain lines burn faster, a factor he must account for when drawing the picture. Some mistakes can be sanded or carved out, but when they can’t, you have to restart the work.

‘“Oak is a bitch because it has a really tight grain,’” he says. ‘“There are some woods that just aren’t really forgiving.’”

There’s more to come, both pyrographs and projects in other media. Bernstein’s working out the kinks on a mobile camera obscura he hopes to employ downtown busking portraits. He’ll use the early photographic technology, in which the sun’s light filters through a lens and slowly develops an image, to draw quick images. A few design kinks, like how to seal the box from unwanted light, must be resolved before the project hits the streets. It’s just one more development in an artistic drive that’s been with him ever since he could dip his fingers in paint.

‘“[Art] is something I’ve never really fully committed to,’” he says, ‘“mostly because of outside influences. It’s not like you ever see artists on TV, I mean, who really cares about art except for artists,’” he says and pauses.

‘“But I do think sometimes artists are honest in a way that can be hard for other people to deal with.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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