By Ken Lutes
What comes to mind when you hear the words “Lichtenberg figures?” Devious characters in a spy novel? Complicated routine for ice-skaters? Slimmed-down dieters? Alas, no. Envision a lightning strike. In artistic wood-burning, electricity can be used to burn patterns that resemble lightning; these “fractal burns” are called Lichtenberg figures.
A walk through a lush Edgewater backyard garden overflowing with tall sunflowers and an active beehive leads to a workshop in a single-car garage. Inside, a rock tumbler on a wooden shelf is at constant work, polishing stones, and there’s the faint aroma of burnt wood. This is where the magic happens for artist Josh Akers.
When asked what he does as an artist, Akers tells people, “I do copper wire bonsai trees and Lichtenberg art. I also use aluminum wire.
“I never start out with any one particular thing in mind. I like to collect some materials – wood and rocks and wire – and then I’ll polish some rocks, twist up a tree, electrify some wood; and then I spread it out on a table and use my eye to put it together. I just create a bunch of beautiful things and put them together.”
Spoken like a true artist, he makes the process sound simple.
He sometimes finds materials in the alley. He says he can “electrocute” anything made of wood.
“The patterns look like lightning, or tree roots. It’s fun as hell to do.”
Akers uses a homemade Lichtenberg machine to burn lightning figures onto a variety of wooden objects: tree branches, driftwood, planks, spindles, bowls — almost anything made of wood.
The machine itself is named for German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who originally discovered and studied the figures in the latter half of the 18th century, according to Wikipedia. It’s powered by a microwave-oven transformer.
“I wired a pair of jumper cables to the transformer, and a switch, because it is very dangerous,” said Akers. “It’s high-voltage electricity. It can kill you.”
A mixture of baking soda and water is applied over the wood as a conductor. After cables are attached to opposite ends of the piece to be electrocuted and the switch if flipped, developing patterns can be manipulated. Moisture content contributes to effective pattern burns.
“A smooth surface allows the patterns to spread out more and become delicate.
“I’ve been a plumber for 17 years. I really don’t know [much] about electricity, so for me to go out, buy a microwave, rip it apart and wire all this up was an adventure for sure; it was scary. The first time I flipped that switch, it did not go on; I had wired it wrong.”
After electrifying the wood, residual carbon is cleaned away with water and a wire brush, to reveal the delicate fractal patterns. The wood must be thoroughly dry before it can be coated with a protective wax to enhance the design. Optionally, the patterns may be filled with colorful paint.
“Ten years ago, a drunk old Indian gave a handmade flute to me. I was walking through Carr Park one night, drunk myself, and I came upon him sitting with all of his belongings. He said he was going to jail and if I saw anything I wanted I could have it. He had these two flutes, so I took them and gave one to my uncle, who says it plays beautifully.”
Akers “electrocuted” his flute with lightning patterns.
Akers is a commercial plumber by day. He started twisting and looping wire into trees, after being handed some copper wire to throw out at a jobsite. For some reason, he kept that wire.
“Messing around on YouTube one night, I stumbled on how to make copper wire bonsai trees,” he said. “Christmas was coming up, so I twisted some up for presents, and everybody liked them. Some trees can take five to six hours to twist up.”
Besides different types of trees, he makes scorpions and insects. Many of his works include a combination of bonsai trees, rocks and his Lichtenberg creations.
“As a kid, I collected rocks and kept them in a drawer or a box, and every now and then I’d take them out and look at them, but that was about it. Now, I have the opportunity to make them into something functional.”
Akers claims that you don’t have to have refined skills to do what he does, just an artistic mind.
“I would love to see more people do this,” he says. “I can’t take credit for inventing any of this; the ideas for the trees and the Lichtenberg process all came from YouTube. But I put it all together in my own way. It comes from within. I’ve been nonstop since December. I get home from work and come out to the garage and I don’t do anything else.
Josh Akers’ works are on display at the Gallery of Everything, 6719 W. Colfax Ave., immediately west of Casa Bonita, where his bonsai trees, Lichtenberg art and “magic” wands will be featured through September.