Playing with Fire
Loveland pyrographer Julie Bender turns up the heat to create “drawings” inspired by her deep love of the natural world
A few years ago, Julie Bender was living in Atlanta and working full-time as a project manager—“you know, I was a responsible adult,” she laughs—until the call of her art became too strong to resist. The self-taught artist left the big city for the beauty and charm of Loveland. From her studio there, Bender travels around the state to observe the wildlife that become the subjects of her work, created in a style of beautiful, nuanced realism etched by fire. Here, she describes how she fell in love with pyrography and explains what ignited her passion.
CH&L: You might be the first pyrographer we’ve met. Tell us about your medium.
Julie Bender: The literal translation is “drawing with fire,” but I prefer to say that I’m painting with heat. It’s an ancient art. It dates back to cave drawings, when people would decorate the walls of their caves with the residue from a burned stick. Flash-forward to today, and we have very specialized tools—a range of metal tips for the stylus—that give pyrographers different textures and colors, different results. I recently began burning on heavy-duty watercolor paper, but for a long time, I burned on wood. The results are just thrilling to me.
Staking His Claim
How did you discover this medium and your passion for it?
In 2002, a dog of mine died young. Zoe was my best friend. I wanted to keep her ashes in an urn, but nothing I found felt right. I finally settled on a cherry wood urn and thought, ‘What if I make it more personal by burning an image of Zoe onto the side of the urn?’ So that’s what I did. I bought this cheap hobby shop wood burner, and that’s how it started. I have a degree in fine arts, but I had never done anything like this. I realized soon after that burning is my calling. Now I have much more sophisticated technology, of course, but the passion is the same.
And you still find inspiration in animals.
Yes. When I started, my subjects were dogs. All dogs. Then I thought, ‘Why not try some other animal? What if I tried horses?’ I started going to horse shows and selling my work at the shows. Then I found inspiration in other animals. I lived in Atlanta and had a full-time job, and I would burn at night. I couldn’t get enough. That’s what led me to Colorado: my love of wildlife. If I weren’t making art for a living and if I didn’t love animals so much, I wouldn’t have even thought about coming here.
Tell us about your process.
I have to observe the animals firsthand. That’s one of the biggest reasons I moved out here. My process begins by going into the field and spending untold hours observing their behavior, so I can understnd the scene or the animal I’m producing. It’s important to me to be able to predict their behavior, to understand them so well that I notice when something is different or special. My goal is to show people something they haven’t seen in this animal before.
I take photographs in the field, thousands of them. When I go back home and look through them, my heart jumps out of my chest when I see a photograph that could be a piece of art. And then I work not just to emulate or copy the photograph, but also to consider size, proportion and the ever-important composition. Then I try to create an image that is meaningful, not a mere representation but a glimpse of that animal’s story.
Most of the tools I use are very tiny—approximately 1/4-inch in diameter—which doesn’t leave me room for any other style but one that is detailed and representational. Most artists find ways through their chosen medium to loosen up their work. Wet media are more flexible in this regard. But I have discovered additional means to loosen up my work, including torches, solvents and other natural materials to convey such things as textures, which I could not achieve otherwise.
It seems to me that your medium is perfectly matched to your subjects.
I think so, too. Pyrography allows me to capture the animals’ coloring, textures, values—everything about how their coats and hair look. My medium is rustic, sepia-toned, almost masculine in appearance, and it picks up the essential qualities in animals.
What I love about pyrography is that it’s monochromatic in nature. I’m a purist in that way. I like to be able to see my image emerge very slowly. I like that I can bring out the tones on the paper. I can work it until I feel like it’s done. I use very little or no color in my work at all. If I use color, it’s to accentuate a particular part of an animal.
And you’re obviously in the right place to capture the natural world.
Let me tell you a story: I was recently selected as one of four artists to participate in the Boulder County Open Space Artist-in-Residence program. I got to spend five days at Caribou Ranch, and I knew there are moose in the area, which made me excited because I hadn’t been able to observe them up close. They’re elusive animals. The very last day, the morning I was to leave, I went to the beaver pond behind the picnic grounds and suddenly heard this sound, this grunt. I walked toward it slowly, and sure enough, I heard something crashing through the brush. All of a sudden, there was this enormous bull moose staring right at me. I thought I would fall over, I was so nervous. I took a ton of photos as he crossed this field, bobbing his head and grunting. My body was vibrating; it was so exciting.
Are other animals so hard to find?
No. I’ll keep searching after moose, but other animals, I know how to find. The elk are in Rocky Mountain National Park. I find bighorn sheep before and during the rut by heading up toward Georgetown. I go to longhorn ranches, where I can stand in the field with these beautiful creatures, and I go to rodeos to help me understand Western culture. I’m really just embracing all of the West. It’s the whole culture and experience—I want to take it in and then tell its story the best I can.
Julie Bender’s work is represented by galleries throughout the country, including Walt Horton Fine Art in Beaver Creek, Heritage Gallery West in Paso Robles, Calif. and Mountain Trails Galleries in Sedona, Ariz. For more information, visit juliebender.com.