Steve Woodbury’s great combination of calligraphy and gunpowder
G iven its primary use, gunpowder seems an unlikely substance for creating something. But for Hobart artist Steve Woodbury, 49, it is this duality he loves about making “gunpowder art”.
“Gunpowder was initially invented to be used as a medicine, but now it is better known for its destructive quality,” he says. “So now I am using that quality for creating something new. I create the destruction that creates the creation.”
Woodbury paints gunpowder paste onto paper, canvas or polystyrene and ignites it, the explosion searing the pattern into the substrate. Different compounds create different colours, and various effects are achieved. The careful application of pressure as the powder burns ensures it ignites and consumes as intended.
Woodbury confesses to having had a fascination with gunpowder as a primary-school-aged kid, when he took it out of fireworks to experiment. Later, having tried to be an engineer, he returned to art, mostly painting and drawing.
Woodbury developed an interest in ancient calligraphy and was fascinated by the art form’s origins as something mystical before becoming a method of information transfer, and later a decorative art in its own right.
By combining his love of calligraphy with his affinity for gunpowder, he came up with a new script art form.
“Calligraphy used to be the main way of recording information and passing it along, and the modern equivalent is the Qwerty keyboard,” he says. “So I referenced the Chinese origins of calligraphy by taking passages from Sun Tzu’s Art of War, then projecting a modern keyboard onto a wall and tracing the movement of my finger over the letters as I ‘typed’ out the words.” The resulting squiggles are what Woodbury calls QWERTY Lines, abstract shapes that represent the act of typing a word.
He then painted the squiggles onto various substrates to be seared into a permanent image with gunpowder.
“I prefer doing abstract work,” he says. “If I paint a tree, it’s always a tree. But for me, the art is the thing you can’t explain. There is no right or wrong way to interpret my work.”
Of course, when you use something like gunpowder, getting the proportions just right is vital. “You’d think the flames and the explosion would destroy something like paper, but if you get all the conditions just right, the paper lives through it,” he says. “I had a lot of problems in the very beginning, though. Like fire, gunpowder has a good and a bad side. It took a lot of practice to get it right.”
The Big Bang, gunpowder works by Steve Woodbury, is on show at the Henry Jones Art Hotel in the lobby, atrium and Packing Room until early November