It comes naturally to Daphne Thomas. Well, her medium does, anyway.
“My sister has always been an artist. She went to school for art,” Thomas says. “I never took art lessons.”
That is until about 12 years ago, when she started “dabbling” in pyrography, the art of burning images into wood. Before that, Thomas took a more traditional route of studying biology at UNC Asheville.
Pyrography was beloved by Thomas’ late grandmother, who died two years before Thomas was born. Not only does the art form let Thomas feel connected to the woman she never got the chance to know, but it also allows her to develop a closer relationship to nature in ways that textbooks and species catalogues don’t allow. Thomas’ inspiration — just like her medium — comes from her walks in the woods.
“I love the mountains,” says Thomas, who was born in Bryson City and now lives and works in Oriental, a short drive from New Bern. “You walk out your back door and up the hill, and you’re in your own little world.”
While roaming her native Appalachia, she admired the showy pink-white flowers of the rhododendron, but since moving to the Inner Banks, where her husband is originally from, she gazes up at the likes of loblolly pines to find her solitude.
The conifer, copious in eastern North Carolina, isn’t easy to burn images into — it’s too sappy — so she sticks with other wood like maple, cherry, birch, and plum. The wood is reclaimed and comes from all over: the forest, the side of the road, lumber yards, friends. The only place it doesn’t come from is the store.
“Why don’t we take something that’s just going to rot and disintegrate and create art with it?” she asks. “Wood is beautiful, even with all of its flaws.”
Thomas likes the challenge that comes with those flaws — the crooks, the knobs, the turns in each piece of wood. After getting a log, she lets it sit, giving it enough time to check and split as much as it needs to as it dries.
She doesn’t mind if the wood takes its sweet time because she’s taking hers, too. Thomas mulls over the shape and grain of each piece, which inspire the image she’ll sketch and then eventually burn into the wood.
The majority of Thomas’ pieces depicts animals, anything from owls to octopi. North Carolina’s state symbols, like the Eastern box turtle and the honeybee, also make frequent appearances in her work. Nothing is off the table at her small home studio where she finds herself working every day.
“Those with fur are fun, but feathers are interesting, too,” she says.
It can take Thomas as long as three weeks to finish a piece, depending on its size. Intricate details, like feathers and fur, require a slower pace.
If she messes up, she has three options: to find a way around the error, to incorporate it into her work, or to sand the image off completely and start all over.
“Once you burn it, it’s there,” she says.
Thomas first picked up pyrography for personal enjoyment. If you had told her a couple of years ago that her pieces would one day be featured in an art gallery, she probably wouldn’t have believed you. But now you can find her work at Bank of the Arts, a gallery run by the Craven Arts Council in downtown New Bern, and Pigments of Imagination in Bayboro.
Now that her work is on display, she hopes it’ll foster a greater appreciation for our natural world.
“We take it for granted — all of it,” she says. “I even do.”
It’s true. The world’s greatest masterpieces can be found right outside your door.
Create Your Own New Bern Art Walk
Bank of the Arts • 317 Middle Street
Established by the Craven Arts Council, Bank of the Arts features a monthly exhibit dedicated to the work of a local artist. Enjoy peaceful melodies while perusing art — including some of Thomas’ own — during one of the gallery’s concerts that takes place on various Saturday nights.
The Red Shoe Studio Gallery • 317 Middle Street
At The Red Shoe Studio Gallery, artwork is made with a far-from-conventional medium: felt. Stop by the gallery, which is also a studio, to see just how owner Andrea Owens makes her whimsical pieces.
Framing Fox Art Gallery • 217 Middle Street
Americana paintings on display at Framing Fox Art Gallery capture the imagination by illustrating various turning points in our nation’s robust history. Beautiful cityscapes — of places near and far — are also captured in many of the pieces.
Community Artist Will • 415 Broad Street
Community Artist Will, a nonprofit that functions as an incubator for artists of limited means, operates a co-op gallery that displays work ranging from sculpture to knitwear, photography to watercolors.
Greater Good Gallery • 228 Craven Street
Greater Good Gallery features the work of emerging artists in a showroom located inside the historic Isaac Taylor House, built in 1792. On Saturdays, guests can enjoy free painting demonstrations from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.