medium. pyrography on 400lb watercolor paper with digital watercolor
by. Michael O'Shields
location. Mechanicsville, MD
Welcome to Ice Cream Social, the summer's socially distant group art show, featuring creators and makers from all walks of life, coming together to share their love of the greatest treat known to man. Each week through Labor Day, come chill with new artists as they discuss a wide range of topics spanning their personal journeys, art, pop culture, and, of course, ice cream! This week, we sit down for dessert with digital artist Brendan Albetski, pyrographer Michael O'Shields, and oil painter Maria Solias.
Parents hated them, which made them even better!
Michael, thanks for being a part of the first-ever Ice Cream Social. I've long been an admirer of your pyrography, and in an increasingly digital world, this is a breath of a fresh air. How did you ever get into this in the first place, though?
Thanks! We were looking into doing comic conventions, because why not?! They are so much fun in our area, but there are so many wonderful and talented artists. How do you compete in such a crowded space? In the Army, I was a carpenter by trade, so I was no stranger to wood. I remember doing pyrography when I was little as a craft project, and thought this is an art that you just don't see on Artist Alley. This is our in! I started burning in 2012 with enough success to keep at it. I'm amazed how much better you get at your craft when your doing it almost everyday for eight years.
Ice Cream Social was always meant to launch at the heart of the summer season, Fourth of July weekend. As a serviceman, does Independence Day hold more meaning for you, beyond the standard beaches, barbecues, and fireworks?
I was stationed at Fort Myers (Arlington National Cemetery) and the pomp and circumstance around the holiday just reinforced the sense of Americana that The Fourth brings. The Fourth of July is one of those holidays that seem to make time stand still. I can remember gatherings, parties, of trips that take place around the holiday and they were never the same.
Well on behalf of everyone reading, thank you for your service.
Has there been anything from your military background that has been a helpful life hack for your art life?
I get most of my wood from the local crafts stores but if there is a larger piece, my background as a 51B (Carpentry and Masonry Specialist) taught me what wood to buy, how to cut it down, and router the edges as needed. being Stationed at Arlington we spent a majority of our time there building shadow boxes, trophy cases, and picture frames, the finer art of wood finishing.
Speaking of wood finishing, your piece, "Candy Sticks", is a tribute to the most controversial item on any ice cream truck. What made you choose these as your subject matter?
First, they are pure sugar! Second, I remember as a kid in the 70's how "cool" we thought we were with these pretend cigarettes. Parents hated them which made them even better! Fast forward a few years and a buddy of mine had his own fleet of ice cream trucks! We met in 2004 when we both took our daughters to story time at the library. These 2-year-old girls found each other and became fast friends, as you do at that age. Little did we realize that we were the only dads in attendance.
So Fourth of July is his busiest day of the year and any extra hands to help was much appreciated. When I got on the truck, the first thing I saw were candy cigarettes hiding behind the new moniker of candy sticks. I had no idea they were still around! Once he found out how much I liked them, he would just give me cases whenever he saw me.
Allan Burch owned and operated The Bells of St. Mary's Ice Cream Truck Fleet. Unfortunately, he passed away from cancer last year so when you asked if I'd be interested in the project, candy cigarettes was the first image that I thought of and it reminded me of my friend and watching our girls grow up.
"Candy cigarettes bringing people together" was not something I expected to encounter with this art show, but that's a touching story. Are there any other ice cream truck confections that captured your imagination as a kid?
When I was looking for old vintage photos of the candy cigarettes, I came across the awful fat colored cigars that were chewing gum. They tasted awful, and it was just a blob of a mess chewing.
Then there were the wax colas. I never understood this candy! There was more wax than juice!
Running an ice cream truck is like blowing the horn on a giant tractor trailer, or pulling the whistle on a train. You get to turn on the music from your childhood and watch kids run out from their houses just like you did 40 years ago!
That actually sounds pretty awesome. Would you guys ever dip into the product while on the job? What would you grab?
Ha! that's the worst part! Eating profit! You get a commission for what you sold but there was always a small portion of the sales that I had a hand in. I love the watermelon bomb pop! I always got excited when Allan received damaged product because he would just load me up when I went by his house. "I can't sell these..." always meant a win for me!
That sounds like the best kind of danger. How long would a single shift in the truck be?
Whew...all day. Pick up the truck around10-11am on the weekends and get started running your route and go until past dark. If its a good, hot, summer day you wanted to hit it while the getting was good. The mornings were reserved for the local parks and youth sports. Just park and serve!
Was there a particular spot that was a surefire goldmine on a nice day?
The beaches were always a hit! We live down in southern Maryland, and the small beach communities were always worth the drive. But the biggest day was always Fourth of July. All the trucks would park at the fairgrounds where the fireworks were going to be displayed, and each truck would have massive lines all night!
Any territory battles?
You can find excitement wherever you go! I asked the same question. What if another independently owned truck starts selling on your territory? The answer was that all the trucks in the fleet would be called in to surround the independent truck and squeeze them until they left the area and knew that there wasn't any profitability in coming back. I asked "But don't you lose that days revenue?" and Allan said, "Better to lose that time than losing any part of your established territory. Especially when you have paid all the local fees to service the county." I never got to see this in action but I can only imagine it looked like the Sweet Tooth Ice Cream truck wars in Twisted Metal!
This is insane! Before we get back on track and talk about woodburning, do you have any other ice cream trucks tales to share?
No, I think that's all the good stuff!
Then this is the perfect time to talk about your work some more. You mentioned your expertise in selecting wood types to burn. Can you pull back the curtain a little and share some trade secrets, or describe your process?
At this point, I've burned all types of wood, but in the beginning, when [I went] out looking, the cheapest wood to get was pine. Great price but terrible to burn! I'm not saying it can't be done, but it has choppy grains, soft spots, and sappy/sticky spots. Not cool! I thought, well, hard woods like oak, hickory, or maple must be the way to go! They are beautiful and smell really, really good when burning, but take forever to burn! I didn't know much about American basswood, but the crafts stores carried it and it was just slightly more expensive than pine. It comes routed or with wood/bark edges, which frame a burning nicely. But what won me over is how smooth it burns. You can get a nice dark burn or a gentle soft burn. Putting all the factors together, that was the wood for me. The worst smelling wood is gunstocks! Most are made from walnut and they just don't give off that nice wood burning stove smell.
I've dabbled in this, and yes, the smell cannot be beat. Do you wear a mask when you burn? Or has finding the right piece of wood saved you from those random plumes of evil smoke that sting the eyes?
When I'm light burning I don't wear a mask. When I switch to medium or dark burning, I wear a N95 respirator. When it comes to burning color, I wear a 3M 2091 P100 respirator. The colors are all chemical based, and you don't want to breath that in. That is the reason most coloring is done after the burning. I want to capture vivid colors and I found the best way for me to do that is by contour burning, and then adding the colors as a vibrant to light stain. Then coming back and doing the actual burning.
So you're saying the colors aren't simply painted over your burned art? They're also burned in?
Yup! I do light contour burning of the image. This keeps the color from “running” the grain and going where it doesn’t belong. I paint the image like a normal painting minus the darks and lights. The values will be burned into the color and into the wood. I always say the color is “injected” into the wood because it is part of the piece not just painted on top.
I'm going to pretend I understood all of that, and move on to a lightning round before we bring this to a close. Sprinkles or jimmies?
Sprinkles! I don't know what a Jimmie is!
Sprinkles are for winners....
Rainbow or chocolate?
Cup or cone?
Cone. You can't eat a cup!
Sherbet or sherbert?
I had to look this trick question up! Sherbert!
And your ultimate sundae includes the following toppings:
Hot fudge! And I only really want the hot fudge, the ice cream is just a holder....
A bold take! And a perfect time to conclude our chat. Thanks again, Michael, for jumping in on Ice Cream Social.
Thank you! Grateful to be part of the ICS!
Candy cigarettes were first developed in the late-19th century. This item from The American Stationer describes the earliest version of sweet cigs as "a cylinder of chocolate wrapped in a paper resembling cigarettes paper."
Cigarette companies often lent their art specs to candy manufacturers to replicate logos and packaging. As negative press increased, the candy makers ever-so-slightly altered the art, and recognizable brands like Marlboro and Pall Mall had sugary analogs in "Marboro" and "Pell Mell".
The "Candy Cigarette Act" of 1970 failed to ban the confection in the US. A 1991 attempt was also thwarted.
The word "cigarettes" was replaced with "sticks" soon after the 1970 bill, in an effort to shake their diabolical reputation.
St. Paul, MN, has banned the sale of tobacco-themed candy since 2009.
What do you call cheese that's not yours?
Michael O'Shields is a full-time independent artist and devourer of pop culture whose talents are on display over at geekburning.com. You can keep up with his incredible woodburned work – including progress shots – and upcoming appearances at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Email him directly for commission inquiries.