Lisa Friedrich has perfected the art of playing with fire. While some artists prefer the more traditional media of pencils and paintbrushes, Friedrich reaches for gunpowder.
“There was no research on how I could make my own gunpowder art. So I asked my school to fund me a grant to study gunpowder and they went for it,” she says. “Literally all I was doing was experimenting in my mom’s garage. I started with matches and not gunpowder. I would line up matches in a row almost like dominos. Then I thought, this just isn’t that exciting. Let’s start putting exploding powder.”
Friedrich has always been a pyro at heart, but gunpowder hasn’t always been her medium of choice. As a student at University of Minnesota-Mankato, she began as a painting major and studied art history. After switching to mixed media for her studio, Friedrich had to create a school project that was cheap and repeatable, which led her to matches and fire.
“I thought, what really stands out? Fire,” she recalls. “It all stemmed from that one project in class when I was a junior in college.”
Friedrich’s now-signature style, defined by pastel-like yellows and carbon char offset by crisp, stark white lines, has come a long way from her earlier work. She started out with abstract burn patterns; the striking negative-style images came later. “I’m not going to say that I discovered gunpowder art, but the process of using vinyl and making images from the vinyl, that was an idea that was brewed up by me.”
Friedrich begins her pieces by finding a subject and photographing it. She only uses photos with hard edges—architecture is her forte. Dogs, landscapes, nature: they tend to not have the defined edges that will provide a good stencil for her vinyl. “I look at a picture and I know right away, either yes that will work or no, it won’t,” she says.
After the photo is taken, the image is then laser-cut in vinyl. Friedrich adheres the image to thick mat board before laying out the gunpowder on the paper. Mat board is the best material for absorbing the color of the smoke, she says, and vinyl is the only thing she has found that blocks out the smoke completely, giving the images their crisp outlines.
Once everything is set, it’s time for the fireworks. “It’s almost like a show, even though a lot of people don’t get to see it,” she says. After she lights the gunpowder, Friedrich holds cardboard on top of the volatile substance to give her “burns” a specific look, depending on the piece.
“I can control about up to 50 percent of what I know it’s going to look like, and the rest is just, ‘this piece might burn up in flames,’” she explains. The flames, on average, only last about six seconds but can reach up to three feet. Friedrich has never burned herself working on her art because, as she puts it, “I know what I’m doing.” The only close call was the time she burned off part of her hair because she forgot to put it up while working.
Friedrich’s Gold Medal Flour piece that is featured on this month’s cover was especially applicable to her style of art. “A lot of people think of devastation, or the city burning, or the Mill [when they see it],” she says. “It blew up, so it’s almost like it’s on fire again.” Friedrich points to the lazy amber curls around the Gold Mill sign, something she calls the “crawl” of the smoke—a specific effect she looks for in the burn. Often, she will burn three or four of the same pieces at a time, afterward choosing the best burns for her prints.
“When I lift up the cardboard to look at my art, I never know what to expect, so every time it’s this surprise element. Sometimes it’s, ‘Oh that’s a really good burn!’ and other times it’s, ‘Shit, that is just toast, and now I have to throw this piece away,’” she says. “Out of five pieces, if I’m making the same piece, one turns out amazing, two get burnt to hell, and the other two are mediocre.”
Friedrich balances her art with a full-time job, which limits her ability to further experiment. In the future, she hopes to be commissioned for bigger pieces that involve more gunpowder. “I’ve always wanted to do a piece so big that it would scare me.”
Medium: Mixed Media Gunpowder Art
Currently resides: St. Paul, MN