Dorothy Gill Barnes, as described in a tribute from Penland School of Crafts, was a “material poet.” I couldn’t think of a better way to summarize her work. An artist of sustainability—without even realizing it—she brought harvested wood, branches, bark, and roots back to her studio to create with, while not causing damage to the local environment. Her control over her materials is subtle and done by listening to what the material itself dictates. While she meticulously and thoughtfully constructed these sculptures made of twigs and bark, the final products seem to have just fallen from the high branches of a tree or grown from the earth.
This untitled work in the Museum’s Collection exemplifies the feeling of natural growth of Gill Barnes’s sculpture. A rather simple weave pattern around the top of a hollowed-out trunk or branch is done in five, increasingly smaller layers as they go towards the top. The rhythm of these bands of bark reminds me once again of her fitting status as a poet of material.
Born in Strawberry Point, IA, Gill Barnes earned her bachelor’s and master’s in art from the University of Iowa. She took courses at Cranbrook Academy of Art and the Minneapolis School of Art. She taught at Penland School of Crafts and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. Gill Barnes was an American Craft Council Fellow, a recipient of a National Museum of Women in the Arts lifetime achievement award, a Penland Outstanding Artist-Educator, and there is an oral history of her in the Archives of American Art. In addition to the Asheville Art Museum, Gill Barnes is in the collections of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, NY; the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC; the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, NM; the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, AR; and the Racine Art Museum in Racine, WI to mention a few.
An artist in the Asheville Art Museum’s Collection—twice over—Gill Barnes sadly passed away last November due to COVID-19 related complications in Ohio, her home state of over 60 years.
— Whitney Richardson, associate curator