In the backyard of his West Street studio, Mark Peria is smoking — his portrait.
He’s laid underneath a sheet of plywood propped up by a saw horse, like a car mechanic, pink and black smoke billowing out.
When Peria learned about pyrography, he was fascinated with the concept of burning art. But unlike most artists using the practice, he didn’t want to char his work.
“I don’t want to burn the wood, I just want it (smoke) on the surface. I want that dreamy, wispy feel to it instead of super stark blacks,” he said.
Peria works at Fin Art in downtown Annapolis, specializing in portraiture.
The general concept of portraits, recreating the details of another person, is something Peria does with great detail. He can copy someone’s image and make it seem intangible and transparent, almost as if you’re seeing them in a dream. He does this with smoke and markers.
Peria uses paint markers on translucent paper to give his portraits a watercolor feel that also takes on the background of wherever it’s hung, like graffiti or neon lights.
Smoke is something he recently started experimenting with. He starts by reverse engineering his design on the computer, making a giant vinyl sticker out of the parts of the wood he wants to stay clean. The image looks like a mysterious blob at first, but when the smoke clears and the vinyl is peeled, his creation takes shape.
Splayed in the grass of Fin Art’s backyard, Peria holds a canned tiki torch up to the board, letting the flame build up smoke on the surface of the wood.
This isn’t as easy as it may sound. Windy days mean a lot of relighting the torch and burnt hands. The vinyl will occasionally ignite, but rarely the wood.
“Sometimes it does catch fire and I just run away,” he said. “It’s a fun process that feeds the little pyro in me. It explodes if I don’t do it right.”
To add color, Peria started making smoke cakes. The color bombs are a mixture of powdered pigment, beeswax, potassium nitrate and a little gunpowder packed into a toilet paper roll. If the formula is off, he ends up with pink dynamite.
He said he’s always had the “artistic bug,” and been drawing for as long as he can remember.
He grew up in the Philippines, where he would help out at his uncle’s printmaking shop. At 14, he moved with his family to Annapolis, where he studied and started a career in graphic design.
In doing portraits as a pastime, he found art was a good way to connect with people.
“Normally if I’m out walking around, I’m terrified of speaking to people, but then if they sit down in front of me and I’m painting them, I get much more comfortable talking to them,” he said. “Here, there’s a little bit more intimacy.”