I first spotted Bryan Poland’s candle-flame paintings at the Lahaina Art Society art fairs under the Banyan Tree, where his nom de plum is Bryan DeBris. The designs are eclectic, smoky and sooty, and seem wild and untamed. He literally uses flame as a brush, and sometimes fire can have a mind of its own. Then he adds paints, poetry and other personal touches. During August, he will show his work at Wailuku Coffee Company, and kick things off with a reception at First Friday.
“I started candle-flame back in 1969,” says Poland. “When I read the Leonardo Da Vinci diary. It really goes back to the swinging ’60s in London. Everyone was loaded on excitement. I was actually fronting my own rock and roll band at the time. That’s what I intend to do on Friday–I will play music. I’m going to be playing two hours–original music, my own songs, from 4-6pm on First Friday at Wailuku Coffee Company. Fulton Tashombe might come join me for the first hour as well.”
As for his candle-flame paintings, he says they were an instant hit in 1969, back when he experimented in his London studio.
“I was painting in ’69, and playing music,” says Poland. “I read this Da Vinci journal that talked about his work and candles. Da Vinci couldn’t preserve his work with candles, they didn’t have the spray preservers we do now. I was in my studio and the lights went out, so I lit some candles. I was sitting there looking at my candles next to my paint brush, noticing they’re the same shape. I thought, this is weird. I had a canvas already prepped so I basically took it and held it over my head. The candle is in a wine bottle, of course–I have traditions to uphold. I just touched the flame to the canvas and this wing appeared. It was like an epiphany. I drew the flame across the canvas again and another wing appeared. I ran the canvas over the candle again and the scorch marks were amazing. Instead of making tail feathers, the fire split and made legs. I had painted a Phoenix. I got the paintbrush and painted a burning village at the foot of the Phoenix. Ten days later, a gallery director from Manchester came by and showed some interest in the artwork. She went to touch it and I had to scream at her not to because I realized I hadn’t set it with fixative.”
He says that first painting made it into the hands of an Italian debutant and went to Milan. But he didn’t do another flame painting for 20 years. Instead he focused on his music and joined Greenpeace.
“I had a rock and roll band in ‘69, too,” says Poland. “I play guitar. I do acoustic rock. My music is people-friendly. I write songs about the environment, protesting the way the environment is being treated. I’ve been doing that for decades, too. You have to understand I was with the Greenpeace back in the ’70. A lot of those experiences of trying to save the whales translates into my music. The music I played back in the ’70s was a quit-fucking-with-the-earth kinda thing. It was heavy. I wrote a song recently called ‘The Sea Made a Sound’ and the sound was ‘Uh-Oh.’ You know you want your child to grow up with a future, and the future is fucked up. Greenpeace sent me here in 1982 with a one-way ticket. We couldn’t afford the return ticket. We came here to get rid of a Japanese whaling station supply base in Honolulu. Honolulu was one of the biggest fundraising spots for Greenpeace.”
After a stint of sneaking aboard the Japanese Whaling ships in Oahu with pirate flags, Poland found himself on Maui a few years later living with an artist.
“In 1989, I did my second candle-flame painting,” he says. “That was because of a girl. She started painting full time, so I thought I would, too. A couple months later, my candle-flame art is in the gallery on Front Street. I never looked back.”
New technology helped Poland in ways he couldn’t have imaged back in 1969.
“I started doing flame painting in 1969,” says Poland. “but it took its current form in 1994 when somebody invented the laser printer. That enabled me to make copies of my stuff in different colors and sell it cheaper than the original pieces of art. That’s when my stuff took off. In 1994 I started making prints, and 10 years ago I started writing poetry on them. I’m not part of the art scene–my work is not part of the art community because my prints are original art because I write poetry on them. It’s a different art form. The whole point of my existence on this planet is to be different. I’m not bragging.”
The last decade has reshaped his work, allowing him to incorporate colors he can get in laser mediums with painting and candle-flame, as well as original poetry.
“I write haiku poetry on my prints, it’s part of what I do,” says Poland. “’Brushed by an Angel’ is a reverse image, bright and golden. It’s an angel figure that’s really popular. I painted some gold on it. Mick Fleetwood helped me title that piece and he has some of my originals.”
In addition to candle-flame, Poland paints with oil.
“I’ve been oil painting quite a bit,” says Poland. “Sometimes they get in the way. My painting of the cross, that one is an oil. That will be on display. I had never painted a cross. I have lots of angels, too. I’ve been inspired. I have a friend back east who’s a minister and he sent me a box of candles from the altar of her church. It’s what I use to paint angels.”
I ask Poland if he is a religious man, since Christian imagery runs through much of his work.
“I’m a Christian but not a Bible-thumper,” he says. “I’m usually at the Banyan Tree Art Fairs on Sundays. I have just enough time to stop into the church and put a little money in. But I’m not a Bible-thumper. I’m not going to coach you when you screw up. I kind of feel empowered a bit because I do something different.”
Wailuku First Friday, Aug. 4
Opening Reception: 4pm
Wailuku Coffee Company
26 N. Market St., Wailuku