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Painting with fire, acid and rust

Colin Alexander's current art show, Copper Apparitions, features a portrait called "Grandpa." Alexander's grandfather didn't inspire the piece, though. Instead, it is based off of a photograph he found in the Yukon Archives.

Colin Alexander’s current art show, Copper Apparitions, features a portrait called “Grandpa.” Alexander’s grandfather didn’t inspire the piece, though. Instead, it is based off of a photograph he found in the Yukon Archives. The photo, of the same name, includes only the following attribution: “Ross River - 1920.”

Even though the portrait isn’t of one of his relatives, his grandfather did introduce him to the medium he used to create the work, albeit indirectly.

“Grandpa,” like most of the works currently on display at Gallery 22, upstairs in Triple J’s Music Cafe at 308 Elliott St., is a “firecolour.” Basically, it’s a picture drawn by applying flame to a sheet of copper.

Alexander first got interested in making art with fire and copper when he was about nine or 10, he said. He was helping his grandfather solder some pipes.

“I was supposed to be paying attention to what I was doing,” the 36-year-old Yukon artist said, “but I couldn’t help notice all the beautiful colours that were coming off of the pipe because of this torch action.”

Over a decade later, while framing some drawings, Alexander decided to put some copper strips on the frames, and to use a torch to create some colour.

“Then I realized, ‘No, no. You make the portrait with the torch and copper. Let the copper be the canvas, let the torch be the brush.’”

He’s been working on the technique for at least a decade. Alexander heats sheets of copper in a conventional oven for about 10 minutes. This gives the metal its distinct colour and sheen. Depending on where the viewer stands, the metal can appear to have different shades of pink and yellow running through it. “I call it trippy,” said Alexander.

Then, he takes a propane torch and lightly strokes the copper, which he calls a canvas, with the flame. By varying the copper’s exposure to heat, he “paints” the copper. The colours change in predictable patterns: first yellow, then red, then green.

“It’s a little bit imprecise,” said Alexander. “But that’s what we want. It gives it a painterly effect, I think. I like to leave things a little bit vague and to the imagination of the viewer to fill in the gaps.”

After he finishes a drawing, he goes over it with acid. This etches the surface, staining it darker and giving it a matte effect. Commercial rust agents can be used for the same purpose, he said.

There is a danger involved in what he calls “painting with fire, acid and rust.” The works come together quickly. “Trapper,” a 21 inch by 28 inch portrait, only took a day to produce, he said.

Alexander has never had an accident. He’s learned a lot of control over the years, he said.

He hasn’t found anyone - yet - who uses copper and fire to make art the way he does. “I’m like an alchemist in a cave,” he said. And he has yet to sell one of these pieces. By comparison, an oil portrait of one of his art mentors, “Tony,” sold on the show’s opening night.

Alexander’s been making art his whole life. His earliest memory is of drawing a picture of Donald Duck; before gaining inspiration from archived photographs, he copied characters from comic books. And his art is familiar to Yukoners, whether they realize it or not. He’s painted murals for The Chocolate Claim, Dana Naye Ventures and other businesses. But his copper pieces? Those are scattered around the world, he said.

He’s still just beginning to develop his technique. “Talk to me in two years from now, and it will be somewhat more developed,” he said. In the meantime, he hopes this show will expose people to this new kind of art.

Alexander draws inspiration from the past. He would have felt very much at home during the Klondike Gold Rush, he said. He enjoys the freedom that existed then. And he likes to capture things that are in danger of being lost, icons whose stories need to be remembered, he said.

“What I like about the medium is there’s a haunting quality to it,” he said. “And I think when people emerge from that ghost-like manner, it can be very arresting.”

Portraits of historical figures fill the exhibit, whether they’re of unnamed trappers, or deceased celebrities such as John Lennon, Kurt Cobain and Marilyn Monroe. Portraits are his forte, said Alexander.

“I like examining what it means to be human,” he said. “I like to empathize with the sitter.” This means finding the dignity and beauty inherent in each person. As he looks through source photographs he can “see their features like a map,” he said. He looks for qualities individuals may not see in themselves, or perhaps, what they don’t want others to see.

This show includes vast northern landscapes - ravens perched on trees and the northern lights. Others depict Inuit women. The world is changing quickly, and he wants to preserve people and things that are often lost, he said.

“I see that people are being ignored, even in our town.”

In the future, he hopes to do large-scale portraits of Whitehorse icons. A recent portrait subject is Howard, a man who often plays his saxophone in front of Baked Cafe. He provided the background music for the show’s opening.

“My interest is in things that are lost or going. Not particularly corny sentiment, like nostalgia. But a sense of preserving things for posterity. Because that’s really what art is about.”

In capturing the past, Alexander uses the tools of the future. One of his past portrait subjects has used his work as their Facebook profile picture, he said. Interested firecolour artists can take tutorials at his YouTube channel, colinalexander777.

Copper Apparitions runs until June 1.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at