Kari Byron on Creating Black Powder Art for “canvas” and EXPLR for Students [INTERVIEW]

On the latest episode of The Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast I interview Kari Byron (Mythbusters, Crash Test World, EXPLR) about the explosive technique of black powder art she used to create the cover for my book “canvas” and other projects including a painting for the EXPLR Kickstarter campaign. The full interview with Kari can be found here:

James Morehead: You’re known for your work on TV shows, like Crash Test World and Mythbusters, but you are also an artist. What role does creating art play in your life?

Kari Byron: “Well, I think I’m a lifelong artist. My recycle bin was always my craft bin. I’ve constantly been making little things since I was a kid. I used to take old pantyhose and make dolls. I do sculpture all the time, it keeps my hands busy. On Mythbusters, I had such an incredible shop to work with that I could expand what I would do: everything from woodwork, to clay, to molding, to metal, and of course, an alternative medium has been black powder.”

James: Describe creating art using black powder, how you got introduced to the technique, and what it’s all about.

Kari: “I hadn’t really heard about it until I saw some Chinese artists and it was such a great idea. I remember on the set of Mythbusters we’d always have explosions and I loved the detritus left behind from the black powder. It’s charcoal, like something that you would draw with, but when it’s moved quickly with the explosion, it leaves these little trails behind, especially with the big grains. I started collecting old, black powders: rifle powders, gun powders, things that people were getting rid of, and I started just igniting them on paper to see what would happen. And after a while, I started masking off areas to see if I could leave negative space. Then I took a shadow profile of one of my friends, and I laid that on paper, and exploded around it and it made these cameos of people, and then it progressed from there.

“I started painting on the explosions, and then since I’m somebody who plays with clay a lot, I took polymer clay, that doesn’t stick to paper too much, and I would lay it out in squiggly lines so it would leave little holes for the black powder to get into, but would scrape off easily, leaving negative space and a pattern from all of the black powder. It’s become like paint for me.”

James: Creating black powder art requires a lot more planning than people probably realize. How do you plan out what you’re going to do, and what have you learned through experimentation?

Kari: “Since I have less pressure (I do it for myself), I think that the hardest part for me is coming up with the concept of what I want to do. I see it in my head first and walk around for days with what it’s going to be. Once I have an idea, I start thinking about the black patterns I’m going to lay on it, because certain types of powder leave black, some leave yellow. There are really cool combinations, depending on how slow the burn is, or how quick an ignition I can get. They all take a different amount of time. The actual explosion sometimes doesn’t give me what I want, because you are trying to control chaos and it’s not a medium that is exact, and sometimes I screw everything up, and sometimes things catch on fire.

“I also have to plan out a little, for safety. For instance on a foggy cloudy day, versus a windy day, versus a sunny day, powder is going to react differently. The more you contain an explosion, the bigger the boom. So on foggy days. It’s louder and I have to make sure everybody else is at work. I don’t want to disturb the neighbors!

“It already smells like farts from the sulfur that’s burning off, so smokey farty smelling loud noises do not ingratiate you to the people across the fence!”

James: Using the cover of my book “canvas” as an example, and thank you for creating such an amazing piece of art for the cover, how did you approach the request? How did you go through the creative process?

Kari: “It was actually a lot harder for me because I don’t usually have a direction I’m going. I wanted to make something for you that was palatable for a general audience, meaning less skeletons and darkness like I usually do, and something that was a little more uplifting, and that feeling of spoken word.

“I thought about it for a very long time. I definitely wanted to use imagery of somebody with a microphone speaking, and I’m used to putting people in my paintings. In the background I added an element that I hadn’t used before: I splashed a bunch of paint to create that splatter pattern because I wanted it to be as if the words were creating color and motion. I wanted more than just the black and white, I wanted the motion of what poetry is when people are at a poetry slam. You can see that energy coming out of a person. It sparked a much more colorful presentation than I usually do.

“Since then I’ve been using that same technique in other things where I want to express that same sort of emotion, that unspoken feeling into a painting.”

James: What role do the different types of black powder that you use play in your art?

Kari: “Sometimes I layer it, do them individually, sometimes I put them in different parts of the painting. I have some slow-igniting old powders from people who are throwing out and getting rid of their powder. I don’t know if powder expires, but some of the older stuff burns at a weird rate.

“I use a certain kind of rifle powder when I want a ‘yellowing’ after the initial explosion goes off, If I want a little bit of a slow burn to leave that yellowing on the paper. I’ve gotten a feel for it at this point. I think it’s like anything else: you mess around with a bunch.”

James: You recently created a beautiful painting for the EXPLR Kickstarter campaign, where you used 2×4’s to channel the explosion. Was that the first time you’ve used that approach or is that something you’ve done before?

Kari: “I’ve definitely done it before. I’ve used anything I can find around my garage, or at the old Mythbusters workshop, to mask things off. I’ve done a lot of experiments, and I have piles and piles of papers, and generally I’ve given away all of my art to friends, so maybe you’ll see it again when somebody shows their collection!

“I wanted to create something for EXPLR that was about global citizenry. I’m obsessed with antique compasses, so I added an old tattoo-ey looking compass to the middle. I wanted to express that our platform is showing videos and film, and that’s something I went to school for and I love, so I wanted to channel the black powder across a piece of old film. That’s why I was using the two by fours.

“I also have this thing with butterflies. It started when I was trekking in Nepal, I was 23 and was in the mountains for 14 days, the Himalayas, and I wasn’t trained for that. When things would get really, really hard, and I thought I was going to give up, it just seemed like the universe was sending me signs. These two little butterflies tussled up the path and I just started to look for them, and maybe I was just noticing them because I was looking for them.

“I started thinking of butterflies as my guide and so whenever I’m trying to move into new things that are difficult, such as – I don’t know – launching a media company, I think about butterflies. In the [EXLPR] picture the butterflies are supposed to be me and [EXPLR Founder] Jenny Buccos, who want to be butterflies for kids seeking ‘edutainment’.”

James: That’s a perfect lead-in to my last question. When you’re not creating black powder art, what are you working on?

Kari: “I’m working on a lot of things! I’m on the board of the California Global Education Network and, of course, EXPLR which is the media company that Jenny and I are launching. I host a show called Crash Test World on EXPLR. I’m also executive producing a bunch of shows that will be appearing on our platform, which offers subscription-based, high quality, short format video, almost like Netflix for education. There’s a home version, which has amazing content for parents to let their kids see, and a classroom version that comes with lesson plans written by World Savvy.

“I see my kid, she’s on TikTok all the time. She’s looking at video after video after video. I just want to give kids something healthier and better to inspire them, but I also wanted to be really entertaining, so I’m taking a queue from Mythbusters. We were used in classrooms for decades as a little snippet for a science lesson, and I loved that teachers were doing that.

“EXPLR is harnessing that kind of energy. Kids have had a hard time and I want to give them something that inspires them. Teachers have had a hard time and I want to give them something that assists them, lesson plans that they can use.

“I’m very excited, I get really emotional about it. It’s explr-media.com: home version, classroom version. It’s launched. Go check it out!”

Photograph of paperback and hardcover editions of "canvas" by James Morehead
“canvas” by James Morehead

Interested in appearing on The Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast? Submit your poetry for consideration: https://viewlesswings.submittable.com/.

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