Surrounded by her paintings, Marie Barbera stands in her 300-square-foot studio with Monty, her standard poodle. On the sculpture stand to the left is the maquette for a life-size fountain titled Cool From the Creek. Behind her are works in progress, including in the corner, Winter Wind on the Mesa and Tracker.
By Raenell Hooten
In her studio overlooking San Pasqual Valley in Escondido, CA, Marie Barbera constructs personal visions of Native American history. Found here, along with bags of clay, armatures and sculpting tools, are Barbera’s most indispensable research tools: history books, biographies and collections of legends and lore. One wall of her studio is a virtual library of books collected during her travels throughout the United States.
Sculpting came naturally to Barbera, nee Marie Calabro [b1936]. Her father, who emigrated from Italy to the United States in 1915, made a living restoring architectural details and moldings on federal and state buildings. “There wasn’t much money to be made in restoration,” she says, “so we weren’t en-couraged to pursue art as a career.” Nevertheless, both Marie and her brother James went into art—yet nothing in her childhood years in New Jersey growing up amid cherubs and gargoyles would lead you to believe that her soul would be consumed by the history of Native Americans.
“Young Italian girls in the 1940s and ’50s were not exposed to western American art,” Barbera recalls. “I remember liking the idea of being a cowgirl, but I can’t explain how or why I identified so strongly with Native Americans. Even though art was always a part of my life, I wasn’t driven to create anything until I discovered the world of the Hopi, Navajo, Shoshone and Sioux Indians.”
They Dance the Dance, They Chant the Chant, bronze, 28 x 28, edition 30.
The defining moment for Barbera came when she and husband Frank moved to California in 1960 and shortly thereafter made a tour of the Southwest. “Frank had to drag me out of the galleries, especially those with Native American and Mexican art. I loved the colors, shapes and features of the people, and I found myself sketching Indians.”
Initially Barbera felt guilty about appropriating Native American subjects. “It wasn’t my place or my heritage, but when I tried painting landscapes with barns and fences, they just didn’t hold my inter-est. Finally I gave in to my obsession and began painting Native American women.”
In the 1960s, Barbera focused on oversize watercolors (40 by 30 inches) of earthy, large-boned figures. While her style was influenced by Francisco Zuniga, she imprinted her women with bold strength and a linear quality that made them appear to be “carved” out of space. Her use of edges prompted a friend to suggest that she try sculpting. “I love the attenuation of Zuniga’s figures and the large hands and feet, which suggest strength. I studied his drawings and sculpture in books and at the San Diego Museum of Art. At first I resisted the transition to three dimensions, but now I’m sorry it took me so long—I have lots of time to make up!”
Changing Woman, bronze, 22 x 12, edition 30
She created her first piece, a Hopi Indian maiden with a squash-blossom hairdo, in the mid-1980s. “I was teased about her ‘Mickey Mouse ears,’ and when I look back, I don’t know how I had the nerve to show it to anyone. My first five attempts at sculpture were disasters, but then all of a sudden things began to happen, and each succeeding sculpture was better than the previous one.”
Once the techniques of working in clay became second nature, Barbera’s poetic love affair with America’s past began. “Clay is a wonderful medium I can put myself into it. Indians are people of the earth, so I feel I’m having a dialogue with them as I bring their stories of the past into the 20th century.”
Plucking an episode from history or mythology, she freezes it in a poignant tableau of men, women and children embracing the moment. A keen observer of the human condition, she searches for stories others might overlook, then brings them to life using a universal language of physical gestures and the interrelationship of figures. While reaffirming the merits of courage and strength, she avoids sentimentality, leaving the viewer’s imagination to complete the circle of emotions.
Mighty images come from the mind of this petite woman who has never taken an art lesson nor wants to. In fact, many of her sculptures weigh more than she does. To begin she spends hours exploring books. “Inspiration comes when I least expect it,” she says. “I read something that intrigues me, then I go out and look for more information. Before I know it, I’m so involved in the story that I transfer it to my own remembrance.”
Golden Feather, bronze, 24 x 34, edition 3
The inspiration for Shield of the Crow was reading about a mystic shield. “I was intrigued by the Crow tradition of telling their history and acknowledging their honors by adding feathers to their shields and headdresses. I learned more about the shield in Thomas E. Mails’ book Mystic Warriors of the Plains. I don’t duplicate historic artifacts; rather I emulate them and try to bring out their role in the material and spiritual culture of the tribe.”
Conflict is at the heart of several of Barbera’s works. A case in point is the story of Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph. “When I read the story of Chief Joseph’s final flight and began to visualize it in clay, I had trouble working on the project because I was touched so deeply by his painful surrender in 1877. I never thought I’d be able to pick up the story of Indian suppression again because I had poured so much of myself into that piece.”
Once Upon the Plains, bronze, 28 x 15,edition 30.
They Dance the Dance, They Chant the Chant turned out to be a sequel to the experience, however. “That piece is closest to my heart,” Barbera says. “Before the tragedy of Wounded Knee in 1890, the Arapahoes believed that if they danced the Ghost Dance and wore their protective shirts, they would be saved from the white man’s bullets and their fallen ancestors would come back to earth. Well, we know what happened.”
Rather than de-picting the final outcome of the mas- sacre, captured in photographs of bodies frozen in the snow, Barbera commemorated Wounded Knee with a trio of dancers swaying and chanting as they envision the return of the old world. Both the physical motion of their dance and the psychological emotion of their plight are captured in trance-like faces and clasped and outreaching hands.
Women play a seminal role in Barbera’s work, and in many cases she marries her personal experience of raising two daughters and enjoying her grandchildren with the stories of child-rearing at the turn of the century. Once Upon the Plains depicts a mother and her children during the 1870s when the Cheyenne were herded onto reservations and forced to adopt the ways of white people. “We couldn’t take away the Indians’ love of their families. In many cases it was family pride that made survival possible. I used my grandson’s face as the model for the baby sleeping on her shoulder.”
Changing Woman depicts the Apache rite of passage from child to woman. “In a way the Sunrise Ceremony is something like the Christian concept of confirmation,” says Barbera. “The exhausting week-long ritual requires that the girl dance from morning to night around the cane of life, which was moved farther and farther away from her.”
Another rite of passage for women is depicted in Golden Feather. “The Utes were one of the few tribes who did not sac-rifice the eagle for their ceremonies,” Barbera relates. “For the Golden Feather ceremony, an eagle was caught and the woman of the tribe with the most honors was allowed to pluck and subsequently wear the eagle feather. I enjoyed expressing the emotion of such a moment by exaggerating the size of the eagle and letting it appear as an umbrella over the woman as she releases it back into the wild.”
In all her work, Barbera tends to select moments that lead up to or follow the ritual act rather than the sacred moment itself. “Native Americans frown upon divulging sacred activities, so in Sundance I portrayed a High Priest tattooing or painting the legs of a boy just before his ordinance into manhood. By concentrating on the prelude, I was able to render a glimpse and get the flavor of the Sun Dance without revealing anything sacred.”
Barbera works on three or four pieces at a time and laughs about her dirty fingernails and red-stained hands, a curse for having fingers that are never far from clay. Even when she and Frank are traveling to shows in their 40-foot motor home, she takes a piece along to work on. “The yardstick for how much time I spend on a piece is measured in miles, not hours,” she says.
Each sculpture is limited to an edition of 30 with three artist’s proofs, and once the edition is sold out, Barbera breaks the mold and sends a signed and dated shard to each owner. Her pieces are cast at Image Casting, Oxnard, CA, and Metal Art Sculpture Center, Pasa Robles, CA.
“I spend most of my time at the foundry helping oversee the metal chasing and the patinas,” she says. “The colors you see in my work are achieved using traditional patinas that are torch-etched onto the bronze. Only the pastel beadwork is cold-patinaed and the turquoise painted with acrylics. Ron Young, my ‘patina scientist,’ helps me discover which dyes will achieve the results I’m looking for. Then we seal the pieces with a lacquer guaranteed to last for years.”
Although Barbera rues the years she resisted experimenting with clay, she acknowledges that what began as simply an interest in past cultures has become nothing short of an addiction. “If I did anything else, I would be cheating myself. Second to my family, art is my life. And the history of Native Americans is what I hope to leave for generations to come.”
Photos by Will Gibson Photography and courtesy the artist, Troy’s Western Heritage Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Michael C. McCullough Fine Arts, Albuquerque, NM; Robert Wright Fine Art Gallery, Escondido, CA; Santa Fe Trails Gallery, Sarasota, FL; and Hogan Trading Co., Moab, UT.
Featured in March 1997