Monday, October 12, 2009

Interview With Esther Barr, A Metalworks Artist Who Turns Copper Into Living Sea

While walking around the Embarcadero Marina Park (north) in San Diego last month during Artwalk2009 looking at tents filled with fantastic arts and crafts by local artists yours truly ran into a positively entrancing exhibit of repoussé capturing marine animals and birds so vividly that I wondered if I hadn't unwittingly escaped into a 5th dimension and an alternate universe where all living things were made of copper and grew on walls... and that maybe I was much an exhibition to them as they were to me!

The metalworks that had me well surrounded that Sunday afternoon was the creation of Esther Barr's imagination and adept handy work. The metalwork artist from Massachusetts now lives and works in Burbank, California (in Los Angeles area) and was kind enough to grant me a cyber interview posted below:

Smorg: How did you get into metalworks art? Why did you decide on copper repoussé as your specialty?
EB: I was only fifteen when I first saw an artist working in copper relief while on a family trip to Israel. We visited many galleries in Safed, an artist colony, where one of the artists was kind enough to invite us back to his studio while he was working on a copper relief piece. This event did not make an immediate impact on me, as it took nearly 25 years before I finally decided to try to form a design with a piece of metal.

I had always wondered what art medium I was really best suited for. Between films I would sometimes work on an oil painting, watercolors, pastels
or printmaking. One day I decided to look up repoussé on the Internet. I found a workshop given by Sharon Anhorn and it changed my life.

Smorg: You grew up by the sea in Massachusetts. How has your upbringing influenced your art?
EB: Marblehead, Massachusetts was a wonderful place to grow up. We were only a couple of blocks from the ocean in one direction. In the other direction there was open undeveloped land (unfortunately no longer there), and a trail that had once been the old railroad tracks. The arts were very important to the town, and I was lucky to have very talented and encouraging art teachers in the public schools.
Every summer for a week The Festival of Arts takes over "Old Town" which is very historic and has a picturesque Town Hall where the original painting "The Spirit of 76" resides. Boston was a little over 30 miles away, so I was able to frequent the Boston Museum of Arts as well as the city's numerous galleries.

Smorg: Were your parents supportive of your career choice?
EB: There was really never any doubt that I wanted to be an artist when I was growing up. My parents were very supportive of my career choices. They supported me when I chose to study at Rhode Island School of Design as an Illustration major and again
when I decided to change my major to Experimental Film Animation and study at California Institute of the Arts.

The most fortunate part is that we never really talked about how I would eventually make a living while I was going to school. This allowed me to concentrate on first trying to become a better artist, and just letting the future take care of itself. When I
decided to quit animation after a 20-year career to become a fine artist, it was valuable to know that I had to take the time (over 3 years) to develop a body of work before I could even think of exhibiting and selling my metal works.

Smorg: Any favorite artist who influences your style?
EB: No particular artist had an overall effect on my work but I
have always loved the Arts and Crafts movement and especially Art Nouveau, which borrows forms from nature and can be highly stylized. When I began to work in metal I didn't want to just re-create the standard metal work images from the past (gingko leaves, pine cones, etc). Most important to me was that I wanted to be able to continue to keep the same feeling of movement I had when designing animation special effects and to now translate this in my images on metal.

Smorg: You are living and working in California now, though. Is the coast here very
different from back east? Do you look at, say, an octopus here and wonder about its counterpart in the Atlantic Ocean?
EB: I have mostly concentrated on creatures from
the Pacific, but I did create a horseshoe crab piece. I admit that I wasn't sure if anyone here would even know what they were, let alone want artwork of a blue-blooded spider (they are not crabs, and have copper based blood) on their walls. To my surprise the piece got a lot of attention and now resides with a geologist who lives in Utah.

Smorg: You also worked with film companies, providing them with special effects animation. What are some of the films where we can see your work in? Tell us a bit about your experience during the project? Any favorite anecdote?
EB: I preferred moving from project to project, studio to studio. The longest stop in my career was my last at Dreamworks Animation. I had been designing effects for Steven Spielberg's company, Amblimation, when Mr. Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg both asked me to join their new studio. Their first project was "The Prince of Egypt"
The studio was in its infancy, so I was able to get involved in both helping to organize the effects department as well as suggesting designs and concepts for the film. It was a great experience to be at the studio in the beginning.

Smorg: I was mesmerized by your Boundless copper relief. It's a still of a fish jumping out of the waves, I think, but the fish seems to have a past and a future somehow. It isn't that it is lifelike, but that it has a life and would jump off from that copper sheet it is barely contained in if only it could.... which could make for an unsettling occurrence. Anyhow! Did you base that work on any real fish you witnessed in a stream somewhere or is he purely the product of your imagination? How close is the final work to what you had in mind when you started sketching it?
EB: I am really pleased to hear that you could feel what I did when I created this piece, I couldn't say it any better than you did. "Boundless" is an adult Chinook salmon in the ocean, starting to make his final journey back again to his original fresh water birthplace.
While traveling the Pacific Northwest I fell in love with travels of salmon and their incredible life cycle transformations, as they migrate from their freshwater birthplaces to the ocean, and later struggle back to return to their place of origin. Their sacrifice perpetuates the species.

When I started this piece, I only had a rough idea of what the final piece would look like. My original designs are often very rough sketches on multiple pieces of paper. Most of this final design was created directly on the copper. I prefer to work intuitively this way and let the piece evolve while I work on it.

Smorg: What sort of music do you enjoy listening to? Do you have it on the stereo while working?
EB: I have a very eclectic music collection, some classical, blues, jazz, rock, Broadway musicals etc, but lately I have mostly been listening to music from the 70's such as Cat Stevens, Leo Kottke, and James Taylor.
I usually have either music playing or one of the two local public radio stations.

Smorg: What are you working on now?
EB: I continue to work on my water creatures but I have decided to also take to the air and feature a new bird series. My first subjects have been hummingbirds.

Using torch-fused glass enamels over my hummingbird reliefs creates a multitude of abstract colors. This is predominately achieved with only one color of glass. The torch heats the metal unevenly causing the copper to oxidize at different rates as the powdered glass fuses. While firing, all I can see are concentrations of bright yellows and oranges, but this gives me a sense of what the piece might become. When the piece is cooled down I finally see the results and either the piece is finished or needs further heating or additional glass enamels.

Smorg: Where can we see your works? Any exhibition planned soon?
EB: I am working on my 2010 schedule of exhibits. Email me from my website for an exhibit schedule and gallery page. You can also find me on Facebook.


Geisslein said...

Just wanna wish you a beautiful day today...and a great weekend with a lot of nice things happen!
greetings from cold but sunny germany, geisslein

AnnaP said...

Hello Smorgy

I didn't know you followed art.

Georg said...

Hallo Smorgy,

You are right: Ms Barr's copper works are remarkable.

I liked your question about music. But there you draw a blank it seems. Like most people, music is just background to her, to be varied from time to time, just like wallpaper.


Smorg said...

Hallo Anna & Georgy!
I'm afraid I'm still very much an ignoramus when it comes to the fine arts, though Esther Barr's stuff really jumped out at me when I walked by her tent at ArtWalk. :o) She's lucky that her studio is up in Burbank (a suburb of Los Angeles) rather than down here or she'll have trouble getting rid of me! I loved staring at those copper sea creatures somehow.... always expecting them to move as soon as I try to look away! ;o)

I'm afraid you're right about how classical music is often used to fill out the background void. My new flat mate likes classical music and opera, but everything sounds 'beautiful' to her... even when the soprano is practically foaming at the mouth swearing to tear her rival's head off. :oP Arrrgghhhhh!