Typographer Craig Ward‘s first solo exhibition, which opens in New York today, explores Pagan dialect and the ancient wood-burning technique, pyrography. We spoke to Ward about mastering the craft and his interest in Old English…
Pagan is the latest in a series of weird and wonderful experiments from Ward, a designer and art director based in New York. In 2010, he made an A for the cover of CR’s Annual using pollen cells grown in a lab and a number 30 out of magnetic ink for science magazine, Discover. He’s also produced lettering using light writing, smashed glass, paper cones and candy canes and last year, shot food dye crystals under a microscope for a mesmerising video promoting Jon Hopkins album Immunity.
Pagan combines his fascination with classic typography, natural materials and language dating back to the fifth century, and is a collection of chestnut pieces bearing Pagan and Heathen words. In a statement explaining the show, Ward says the aim of the project is to unite the words spoken by tree-worshipping Pagans, who rarely wrote things down, and the trees they were spoken to. “As the pieces age over time, my hope is that it will appear as if the two have always existed together,” he says.
The idea for the show came out of a visit to Stonehenge in 2012, explains Ward. “It represents a part of British culture I hadn’t really thought about before – or not since history classes at school – and after that trip I began looking into Pagan texts, rituals and tree worship and such” he explains.
“The term ‘pagan’ in this instance isn’t intended to invoke the more religious connotations and witchcraft that it’s become associated with since the 20th Century – it simply means ‘rustic’ and I found the simplicity and honesty of the technique and the materials really fascinating – which is how it became a series,” he adds.
Ward stumbled on pyrography after researching type styles of the period and experimenting with stone and wood carving. “I wanted the execution to be relevant to the concept and the time period…it was happenstance that I found some fourth century examples of pyrography, and so I found a kit online and gave it a go,” he explains.
He experimented with several kinds of wood before deciding on chestnut – as it’s softer than other hardwoods, he says type is almost debased on to its surface as well as being burnt. Mastering the technique through trial and error, he wore out his first kit after just a few sessions and had to order more robust soldering equipment. “As I became more confident I felt more capable or realising more intricate type styles, and it became a spare time project that I could dip in and out of when work was quiet or I needed a break.”
The largest pieces in Pagan were completed over three or four days, discounting time spent prepping and sanding wood, laying out type and selecting the right pieces of chestnut. “I got in touch with a wood supplier that I found online, and they would send me photographs of pieces they had.
“From these, I would select ones that I felt looked most interesting and then digitally add type styles and lay it out in Photoshop to get an idea of how it would look. Some of the type was drawn by hand, some digitally and some simply using existing typefaces,” he says.
Ward then transferred the designs on to wood by drawing it, tracing it or heating printed paper to transfer the ink on to the surface before burning. “It’s a lot like tattooing in that respect,” he says.
It’s a laborious process and one that requires fierce concentration for extended periods, but Ward says pyrography is a rewarding craft. “I did at one point consider laser engraving, but I felt that would completely undermine the concept – it had to be physical and honest to be worthwhile. So much of my work seems to just exist on screens these days, so it’s nice to have physical things to show for it.”
See Pagan until January 30 at the Type Directors Club, 347 W 36th Street, New York, NY 10018.