Chris Burns: Pyrography and Making Art with Fire

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Some time ago, I daytripped  up to Whitby for an exclusive studio visit with the talented Chris Burns: artist, pyrographer and brain behind Champstiles Woodburning. With contagious enthusiasm, Chris gave me a fascinating tour of his seemingly infinite collection of artworks and commission pieces, ranging from decks to vintage-inspired chessboards to knot-eyed bong-smoking aliens. Intrigued by my first encounter with the craftsmanship of wood burning, I sat down for a stirring conversation about perseverance, artistic permanence and finding your own niche. Read more below!

How do you think wood burning has changed for you since you’ve made it a business?

It depends on the project. Treating it like a business helps me do it full time. When I’m recreating a company’s logo ten times over I don’t feel like an artist, but that’s what pays the bills. It forces me to do different styles. Sometimes I have to shake the artist title because some people could come up to me and say: “Yo man, I want you to make this logo but I don’t want to cramp your style as an artist.” My role is to bring your vision to life, so tell me what you want done and I’ll make it perfect.

So people are sometimes reluctant to approach you as an “artist”? Why do you think that is?

Sometimes. Unfortunately, there are a lot of artists that can’t meet a timeline or can’t give an accurate quote and stuff. When someone like a big advertising agency downtown reaches out to me, if I complete the project on time, on budget and it’s high quality, then that goes towards building my reputation as a reliable artist. I still view myself as a tradesman, I won’t sit around for three months waiting for inspiration. If you need something done Friday, I’m going to start it right now and have it finished by then. It’s a little harder when you’re doing original pieces, but I mean, that’s the balance, right? I can put one hundred hours and burn a masterpiece but I might sit on it for ten years and never get that hundred hours back. But if someone is going to pay me upfront for something for one of their businesses, it is very much a balance between the business and the art side of it.

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How did your artistry develop through time?

It’s trippy, I dropped out of two art/media programs in college and my third year was kind of like my third strike. I was either going to do art or woodworking. I decided to go for woodworking because I knew that as a tradesman I would actually be able to make money out of it. I also knew a hundred people that drew better than me and I never viewed myself competing with that so I went for woodworking and didn’t think about art for six years. It was when I started signing my name on the wood projects I had made that I discovered I could do pretty much anything with the wood burning pen. Everyone who saw my work started suggesting different surfaces like canoe paddles, tables, guitars and all the different things I could burn just started to snowball. I feel like I’ve gotten that mix right… a lot of wood burners are oblivious to the woodworking side of it, but not only can I  properly prepare a piece of wood but I can build a table for you and burn it.

You’ve created your own niche.

Well, yeah. Instead of being the one-hundredth best artist that I know personally, I’m the best wood burning artist. When I’m in a gallery full of paintings, I look at them in awe and wish I could do something like that, but my stuff stands out and now I have people coming up to me and asking be about it, because it’s different.

Do you find art can be intimidating?

I don’t think that way, I’m not intimidated by art at all. You can’t have any hold-ups as an artist. If I make a mistake, that may be the mistake that makes someone like my piece enough to buy it. I’m not self conscious about it and art isn’t always about skill for me. It’s just about putting it out there. I get real passionate about talking to artists in our collective. Your shit is awesome as it is! Don’t fret if it wasn’t exactly how you wanted it to come out. Your perfect piece may never sell and the piece with the mistake may be the one that sells quickest. This is why exposure for the arts is so important.

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Do you notice a shift in Toronto’s cultural scene?

There are beautiful things going on in the city, we need people to help show what’s going on. I think the city is coming into its own. Even when I first started doing stuff in the city, I can see we’ve all come up together. You need those connectors and we don’t need to look outside the city for the talent. I think Toronto has always been very self conscious about not being good enough, not being New York enough, not being on the world stage and I think we’re starting to realize that we don’t need to look outside of our borders to find world-class talent. We just need to support each other and show the world that we’re world-class. But we need to believe in ourselves first. I’m just as inspired by that side of it than by putting my own work out there/It’s the people that surround me that inspire me to put my stuff out there. I’m just trying to get by! The only reason I started wood burning was because I got laid off and I needed to pay bills so I was just doing whatever would sell and that’s where the beaded necklaces began, for example. I’ve sold about 500 of those since I started and I’ve hand-beaded every one of them. When I went to woodworking school I never thought I’d be up at three in the morning beading necklaces with fucking beads rolling under the couch. But that’s what people want and I’ve surprised myself by being able to develop my own style.

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Do you usually work spontaneously or do you sketch beforehand at times?

It depends. If I want something to be super accurate or if I’m recreating a logo or portrait for someone, I’ll lay that down first and start… but for original pieces I’ll usually just stare at the wood, let it speak to me, let a character or shape come out and then burn it. The wood burning is so permanent too. I really like the idea of just putting something down and not being able to fix a mistake… it helps me just be loose with it. I’m not one for doing drafts, I like to be permanent. Art is all about the time and the place for me. I look at some of the older pieces I’ve done and I can feel where I was in my life at that time because I let myself become uninhibited. So I mean, it depends. I will really do whatever you ask. Whether you want a portrait of your baby or of a military guy smoking a bong, I’ll do it all.

What was the most challenging piece you’ve done?

Technically, portraits mostly. I did a family portrait that had a baby and three teenage girls and just knowing that I’m doing a real-life portrait of them which is going to be in their house forever and that teenage girls tend to be self conscious I didn’t want to mess up. Technically, I find the hardest pieces to burn are things like a bright picture of a baby that doesn’t have a lot of dark detail. As soon as you burn, it’s dark… so it’s really hard to go slow, at light temperatures and do really faint details. I’d much rather do a portrait of an old man with a lot of wrinkles and a beard because I can get really deep with the detail. Light things are tough for me, but it’s always good practice. I love the challenge.

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And you have your solo exhibition “ALL MY SH*T” coming up soon, right?

Yes, on June 5th at 416 Gallery (404 Queen St E). I had a list of all of these creative names like “Burning Desire” or “Fire Breather” but when it came down to explaining the show to people I would just say: “Yeah, I’m just bringing all my shit.” So that’ the name. I’m not embarrassed. I’m going to bring old shit I did that isn’t as good as the stuff I do now, but it’s all a part of me so I just want to share it with everyone. If I was worried, I would just be exhibiting the good stuff. I’m going to have everything from coasters to masterpieces and about seven or eight collaborations. I’m going to fill up that gallery, there will be a real variety to show what I can do, it’s a very proud moment for me. It trips me out, I don’t think of myself as an artist.

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You don’t consider yourself an artist?

Partly because I think everyone is. I’m as much of an artist as anyone. Over the years, every time I sell a piece it still astonishes me that someone is willing to pay for something I did. I am an artist, but I still have a hard time identifying with it. When I do shows I almost always get people asking me what school I went to for art and I mean, I went to school for woodworking (laughs). It helps keep me humble.

Follow Chris and his many projects on his Website and Instagram and stay tuned for his solo exhibition ALL MY SH*T coming up at 416 Gallery (404 Queen St E) on June 5th!