As kids, most of us loved to plop down in the grass, gaze up into the sky, and see how many images we could discover hiding among the swirls and swells of cotton-candy clouds. Just as we were really getting into it, some grown-up would holler, “Stop daydreaming and finish your chores!” Eventually, often rebelling all the way, we took on adult responsibilities and stopped looking for pictures in the clouds.
But Kathleen Marie Wilson figured out a way to make searching for images work for her—and became a nationally recognized, award-winning pyrographer in the process.
Pyrography actually means ‘fire drawing’: Kathleen selects a piece of wood that, to her practiced eye and exceptional ingenuity, will eventually become a vessel extraordinaire for stories and pictures. Once she has determined the tale her wood wants to express, Kathleen begins burning her visions into it with a delicate electric pen—always going with the grain, never against it—and occasionally applying color to the finished product. Her work is such a marvelous combination of imagination and hard physical labor that it’s almost impossible to determine where her picture begins and the wood grain leaves off.
Kathleen prefers light-colored hardwoods with interesting grain patterns. She began using basswood (and still recommends it to beginners), then advanced to woods with more character: pecan, maple, poplar, sycamore and cypress, among others. One piece of wood in her workshop had a beautiful blue cloudy haze through it, perfect for her work, but the color comes from a disease caused by a pine beetle. It’s perfect for her art, she says, but very bad for the Lodge Pole Pine.
“Pecan is another wonderful wood that I love to use,” she explains, “but those distinct lines are caused by spalted pecan fungus. Some of my best pieces are created on spalted woods.”
Kathleen started dabbling in the art of pyrography when she was just a child. Her mother, a Cub Scout leader, gave her an inexpensive wood-burning set, complete with a wedge-tipped tool similar to a soldering iron, like the one her scouts were learning to use.
“The kit came with a little pattern,” Kathleen explains with a grin. “There was a little piece of plywood with a picture on it that you could burn in it with the iron, but I didn’t like any of the pictures. So I turned it over and burned my own picture into the back. I just wanted to do it my way.”
Encouraged by her family to follow her instincts, Kathleen Marie Wilson has always marched to the beat of her own drummer, as have her older brother and two younger sisters.
“My mother was very supportive,” she explains. “We didn’t have much money, but she always managed to scrape up enough to buy me some art supplies. And my grandmother used to save her old calendars so I could draw on the backs of the calendar pages. That gave me twelve pages of blank paper I could draw on. That kind of support is invaluable to a child.”
When Kathleen was about seven years old, the family moved to the edge of Mount Vernon, Ohio, a wonderful little town she calls ‘Dream Middle America.’ Kathleen felt as if she was living out in the country because there was a wide open field across from her home bordered by woods that seemed to go on forever.
“I could go out in the woods any time I wanted to and sort of get away from…people,” she says with a wry, rather embarrassed grin. “I climbed trees and stayed up there for hours. I liked observing the wildlife and how they behaved, and I studied the plants. I learned, too, that if I was still for five or ten minutes, all the animals would ignore me. All I had to do was stay quiet. Birds would land right next to me and do their thing like I wasn’t even there. One time I was sitting in a really comfortable tree when a squirrel ran across the ground, up the trunk of the tree, and right across my lap. It was so cool.”
She and her next-door neighbor, also a budding artist, became inseparable best friends.
“We’d go down in the basement and draw pictures together.” Kathleen chuckles. “Come to think of it, that’s probably where my love of western art started. We’d copy pictures from Remington—you know, cowboys and horses. We both loved horses so much.”
When the family moved to Fairborn, Ohio, Kathleen felt as if she had been uprooted from the heart of the wilderness and dropped into the middle of a major metropolitan area. “I’m a country girl,” she explains with a grin, “so even though Fairborn isn’t a large city, it was way too big for me.”
Maybe it was the woods of Mount Vernon, or the Remington pictures, or the Louis L’Amour westerns she had devoured as a kid, but Kathleen always knew she would one day move west. So, after college, Kathleen and her then-husband, Tom, headed for San Antonio—a seemingly fearless act Kathleen now says was based on the fearless stupidity of youth.
“It was just an adventure to us, even though we were completely broke and drove a ‘Heap of the Week’ car we bought for $180. We left Ohio in the middle of a blizzard with nothing but our camping gear, a few items of clothing, my dog and three pet mice. We didn’t have sense enough to be afraid.”
Over the years Kathleen has perfected not only the art of pyrography, but she’s also become a skilled woodworker, metal worker and furniture-maker. It didn’t make sense to her when people said that a woman couldn’t work with wood or use a chain saw.
“What’s that got to do with gender?” she asks indignantly. “If someone else can do something, there’s no reason I can’t do it, too.”
Tall, slender, and utterly natural, Kathleen has never been afraid to take on unusual jobs in order to support her art career. She’s bartended, stuffed fish for a taxidermist, and even scooped poop as a groom for a quarter horse training stable. “Unlike most artists, though, I’ve never been a waitress or a secretary,” she says with a laugh. “I can’t type.”
Kathleen also worked in watercolor, acrylic, pencil, pastel, and pen-and-ink because those art forms seemed to sell better, but the procedures didn’t inspire her. She built furniture, carved wood, and worked in metal, but her heart longed to return to wood-burning. She had fallen back into the old trap, she says now, of accepting other people’s boundaries for her life and not listening to her own spirit. She realized she had to stop caring about whether or not her work would ever be accepted and simply return to doing what she loved.
“Wood-burning was my true passion and it didn’t matter how difficult it was. I finally understood that success isn’t how much money you make, but how much enthusiasm and energy you have to share with others.”
Today, Kathleen’s life is all about enthusiasm, energy, and passion. She and her husband, Jeff (an expert woodworker she met in an Austin lumberyard), reside on 15 acres near Pedernales Falls State Park outside of Johnson City, and their lifestyle is very ‘green.’ They heat their home with a wood stove, and cutting firewood is an annual chore. Their water comes from an elaborate rainwater-capturing system, they recycle so much they don’t even need trash pick-up, and they’re installing a ‘solar-toilet’ as part of an innovative Dream Shack they’re building to illustrate how green living really works.
“I’m not saying this is the only way to live,” Kathleen explains earnestly, “but it’s the only way for me to live. I have to walk the talk because I care so much.”
Since horses and natural living are so important to Kathleen, it stands to reason that one of her favorite charities is the Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary, located in Mena, Arkansas; she does all she can to help them. These horses, formerly abused or neglected, will run free for the rest of their lives on 320 acres, making Proud Spirit the largest privately-run sanctuary in the country. (For more on this amazing sanctuary, visit www.horsesofproudspirit.com.)
Kathleen has won numerous awards over the years, and was inducted in 2004 into her hometown’s Fairborn Schools Hall of Honor: Career Achievement, Community Service and High Standard of Character. She also belongs to a group of professional artists known throughout Texas as the Texas Wild Bunch, and has been profiled by CBS’ Texas Country Reporter as well as several magazines.
Kathleen’s work appears in The Black Spur Emporium (www.blackspuremporium.com) and The Silver K Café in Johnson City, as well as in other locations, and she especially enjoys receiving visitors at her workshop and gallery on her own property. Sharing the place that inspires her is one of the things she loves to do. To make an appointment for a private showing or for more information, visit www.kathleenmariestudio.com.