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Brushed with fire: A studio visit with artist Zak Ostrowski

Charred work by Zak Ostrowski (COURTESY)
Charred work by Zak Ostrowski (COURTESY)
“Color me shou sugi #1,” by Zak Ostrowski (COURTESY)
“Color me shou sugi #1,” by Zak Ostrowski (COURTESY)

“Here, can you hold this for a second?”

Artist Zak Ostrowski hands me a small blowtorch spewing a slender stream of blue fire. Verifying I’m comfortable with my charge, he steps away for a moment, rummaging about in a shelf piled with scraps of wood, plucking out planks of different wood, teak and oak to demonstrate how the different grains accept the flame differently.

“It’s a really fun process and a great release” he comments, running the flame across a bar of reddish oak. The air around us in the back of the Metal Method Studio, Ostrowksi’s shared workspace with three other artists, smells slightly bitter, mixed with a toasted-marshmallow aroma.

The plank of pine with which he started begins to crackle and bow within minutes while the oak stoically turns black, requiring a sustained flame for any notable affect. Similarly, the tight grain of teak requires a strong burn, which slowly reveals lacey veins residing in the surface, glowing with each pass of the flame. Wielding his flame brush, and through trial and error, Ostrowski has become acquainted with the levels of punishment his wooden canvases will accept.

Ostrowski’s process takes inspiration from the ancient Japanese process of Shou Sugi Ban, which chars planks of wood to dry them out and prevent rot, which made them ideal for exterior walls in ancient Japanese houses and, incidentally, produces beautiful organic patterning. Studying for his master's degree in architecture at UNLV exposed Ostrowski to the Shou Sugi Ban process, eventually leading to artistic experimentation.  And burning is only phase one.

After dousing the wood with water and drying it out, several layers of clear sealant are applied, hardening and sealing the surface and allowing for paint to be applied. Bright pinks, greens, blues and metallics pop against the rich black, crackled surface, designs conforming and enhancing the fractal patterns which emerged from the charring process.

Ostrowski says that photographs taken by the Hubble Telescope influenced the works on display in his exhibit Pyroclasm at Brett Wesley Gallery (which runs through this Saturday)The reference to deep space imaging adds another layer to the multi-colored cells pulsing upon wooden discs and planks — an abstracted cartography of foreign galaxies. His piece “Color me shou sugi #1,” created for his residency at The Cosmopolitan's P3 Studios last summer, spreads across five blackened beams like the pixelated infrared scan of a distant nebula.

There is alchemy to Ostrowski’s process — creating through destruction — yet the art object retains links to its former existence, the grain lines of pine and poplar simmering behind layers paint. “The process capitalizes on exploiting the grain structure of the wood,” he says. "It allows the wood to be something more, but still ties to its roots.”

Pyroclasm: 12-6 p.m., through April 27; Brett Wesley Gallery, 1112 S. Casino Center Blvd.,