Animal skulls, skateboards, bread boards, rolling pins. There is almost nothing that Billings artist Melissa Burns won’t carve or burn into to make art.
But don’t call her an artist. She finds the label too elitist. Burns, who uses the business label Girl Wood, would rather be known as a craftsman, taught by her late father, Timothy, to saw and sand wood to make useful and beautiful objects.
“I was dad’s right-hand person. He taught me how to build houses with him and every day when I got home from school, I’d unwind by helping him work,” Burns said.
Yes, Burns is her real name. She has sort of grown into the name, which she acquired when she married Black Sparrow tattoo artist/owner Damon Burns. For years when the couple went out, it was Damon that people in Billings knew because of his popular tattoo design work. But these days, it’s Melissa’s turn in the limelight because her wood designs have been featured at ArtWalk and this weekend, she makes her debut at the Yellowstone Art Museum’s Summerfair at Veteran’s Park at 13th Street West and Poly Drive.
The art and craft fair, which also features food, artist demonstrations and live music, runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday.
Burns took up wood-burning about three years ago, prompted in part by the loss of her father. He purchased Burns her first wood-burning pen when she was 15. She still had the pen but hadn’t used it in years when Damon suggested that she quit her day job, stay home with their daughters, Amelia and Olive, and make art.
“I just listen to music, hang out with my dog and burn wood,” she said.
Burns said she feels like she is paying homage to her father, but sadly understands that he did not live long enough to see her woodwork.
Cedar is her favorite wood to burn, but Burns has also used driftwood, pine, walnut and oak to make her intricate designs. Each design is drawn four times from the first stages on paper to the final burned image. She also uses wood stain and leather stain to add colors.
It’s challenging to describe Burns’ style because it changes by the project. She burns images of elk and trout on wall plaques in the shape of the state of Montana. She also burned a 14-inch design of a woman with peacock feathers and other symbolism based on 14th-century folklore about the seven deadly sins.
Burns used a small torch, which she purchased when she worked as a chef, to char a piece of wood, making it all black. Then she etched a horse head into it with its mane blowing in the wind.
Often, customers connect strongly to her artwork, something Burns said she would never have predicted.
“I did a design of a woman from World War II who was working in the factories. I had a woman come to my booth and hug the piece. She actually started crying and said, ‘I have to have this.’”
For Summerfair, Burns will print a new design onto T-shirts of a woman with octopus tentacles instead of hair. She also plans to finish more of her hand designs, which were so popular last weekend at an arts and crafts fair in Livingston, she sold out of them.
“I have learned so much about myself doing art,” Burns said. “One thing is that simple things can be complex and complex things when they are broken down into parts can become simple. I have also learned patience. I am the queen of not finishing things, but I spent four hours finishing the design on a vintage stamp.”