Sculpting History, Celebrating Native American Life
by Heather Peacock
Larger than life, colorful, and exceptionally exquisite are traits .describing both the sculptures in Marie Barbera’s studio as well as the internationally sought-after artist who creates them. For twenty-five years Barbera has been capturing the essence of the Native American culture through watercolor paintings and bronze sculptures. “I began my career as a painter, then realized that my work would look good in three dimensions,” says Barbera. “So I picked up some clay and as soon as I felt it in my hands, painting took a back seat.” A resident of Escondido for thirty years, Barbera was interested in Mexican art at first, but later she started to research the Native American culture and was inspired to use her talent to bring Indian figures to life.
Her work consists of sculptures of wildlife, such as wolves, birds and horses along with American Indians. “I was drawn to Native American values and the rich history of [their] people. Their traditions and the color of their clothing and jewelry also appealed to me, and I wanted to honor these people through my work.” As she focused on creating and cultivating her ative American artwork, many Indian artists accepted her. Not of Native American ancestry herself, she was voted into the Kiva Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a non-Indian artist who really values
the Indian culture and is able to accurately portray it
in her sculptures.
When she is sculpting she always begins with the face, but all of her faces are different. She also likes to exaggerate the folds in the clothing so as to give as much movement to the piece as possible. In addition, she masterfully uses color to characterize the warmth and life of her subjects. It is important to Barbera to do as much research as possible whn portraying Native American people in order to show respect for the culture and to make sure she does not offend. For example, she will exaggerate clothing or facial e>..1>ressions for aesthetics when portraying a sacred ceremonial piece, but keep a respectful boundary and not portray any part of a sacred act itself. “I don’t try to clone images of people I research,” says Barbera, “because I want them to be truly mine and therefore unique. When I am working on a piece and it finally comes to comple tion and takes on ‘life’ I always question,
“How did I do that?”
Marie has art in her genes. Her father and brother were also artists who did restoration work on
churches and stone figures in New Jersey. But because her father struggled to make a Living with his art, and because he didn’t want his daughter to face the same obstacles, he encouraged her to pursue a career where she could collect a constant paycheck. Her father declined opportunities to send Marie to art school, but the artist in her soul emerged and she taught herself the skills that made her successful. She attended occasional workshops, but mostly through trial and error Barbera cultivated her talent and built a name for herself in the art world.
She admits that female artists face discrimination in art just as they do in business. “As beautiful as the art world is. it can get ugly. It’s political, and who you know makes a difference,” says Barbera. “There are a lot of rejections and a lot of critique. You have to love your craft. I have friends who are natural artists and I have seen them quit. Success takes patience.” Toe secret of her success has been to work hard, stay determined, and grow thick skin.
Marie’s parents were Italian immigrants who lived on the east coast, but on a visit to California, particularly Escondido, they discovered that Escondido’s mountains and vineyards reminded them of the beauty of Italy, so they relocated. In 1960, Marie and her husband and young daughter also moved to California and have been here ever since.
Marie Barbera’s husband, Frank, is her marketing representative, traveling to various art shows to exhibit her work. She does about ten shows per year including the Arizona Fine Art Expo in Scottsdale, Bazaar del Mundo in Old Town, the Indian Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico where she will appear at the Kiva Gallery August 16-19, and Artwalk on the Bay in San Diego on September 8th and 9th. Barbera’s work is also shown in the Old Town Gallery in La Quinta, California and the Robert Wright Gallery at 140 E. GrandAvenue in Escondido. One of Marie’s larger than life pieces entitled “Waters from the Banks of White River” is on display at the Center for Leadership Studies at 230 West 3rd Avenue in Escondido.
Barbera ‘s work is known throughout the country and also in Canada, Sweden, France and England. She generally crafts twenty new pieces per year including one large commissioned piece. Her life size sculptures take her approximately six months to complete. In the future, Marie Barbera says she would love to teach children, maybe when she is done traveling. “But, there is no retirement. There is no time clock in art,” says Barbera. “I won’t stop. My art is a gift. When I’m in my studio it is a place of solace where all the worries of the world melt away.”
She’s feisty, 5 feet tall and driven. In her studio, she talks to her models as she presses day to form their faces and bodies. “I get involved with them; tell them that they will love to be born. An Indian artist told me that she kisses the cheek of a finished piece to breathe life into it. I sometimes do that, too. I could spend my entire life down in that studio and never come up for air-I guess some people would probably call that a form of sidmess,” she says with a shrug-“so be it.”
Marie Barbera changed from being a two-dimensional artist to a sculptor in a single weekend. A New Jersey transplant to California in 1960, she fulfilled her American-Italian mother’s near genetic imprint of dedicating her life to raising two daughters, before taking the time to follow her interests in art. “I had sketched much of my life and I did art projects for the girls’ school from time to time. After they married, it was MY time.
But I didn’t really know what was ahead,” Barbera, now 59, recalls. With her dark-skinned Italian appearance, Barbera quickly experienced the discrimination many Mexicans faced in Southern California. “My looks didn’t mean anything to me. but somehow I got to realize that I was different. I began to relate to the Mexican people and I was drawn to them as art subjects,” she says, sitting among a smattering of her early works still hanging in her home.
But in 1988, at the George Phippen Memorial Show in Prescott, Ariz., Barbera’s artistic direction made an abrupt change. “I had my pictures on display in my booth at the show, but I couldn’t stop looking at the sculptures of a young artist in the next booth. I would look at my pictures and look at her work, and il occurred to me that my pictures would look really good as three-dimensional sculptures. I just had to talk to her about what she did because I had this firm feeling that I could do it, too.
That young sculptor was Star Liana York, who still Jives and sculpts in Albuquerque, NM., about 40 miles north of Santa Fe, and remembers talking with the Barbera’s in Prescott. “She and her husband were so enthusiastic and genuine.” York says. “It was a pleasure passing along what I could about my art experiences.” Says Marie, “Star was very kind to me. We talked at length over the weekend. She told me what l needed to do, and I could not wait to get home, buy some day, and get started.
Sculpting Garments That Flow
“I quickly fell in love with the work of Francisco Zuniga (the late Costa Rican sculptor, 1912-1998) but found that my contemporary art pieces did not translate well into three dimensions.
“But when it comes to the accoutrements, regalia, dress and such, I will do everything humanly possible to ensure that it is all absolutely authentic. I have a friend who is a member of a local tribe and he told me that ifI am going to sculpt the American Indian, I must do it with honor, and I realized that if my work was going to be out in public, it had better be right. If you don’t take that kind of care, you can get chewed up and spit out really easy in the art world, and rightly so. If you are putting work out that is supposed to authentically represent a culture, you must make sure that it is an honest representation,” says Barbera.
“Fortunate!) I have good friends among the tribes who send me resource material to help me stay accurate.”
Paula Rhae McDonald, owner of the respected Kiva Fine Art gallery in Santa Fe, says that Barbera is one of only a handful of non-Indians among the more than 50 artists represented by the gallery. “Marie is dedicated to authenticity in representing the Indian culture. Whenever she is here, she spends hours talking with the Indian artists, learning all the time. When I met her, she was the first non-Indian l considered representing,” says McDonald, who-has Indian ancestry in her own bad<ground.
“! asked some of the other artists what they thought of her work, and one of them said, ‘She may not have any Indian in her blood, but she clearly has a lot of Indian in her heart; and I have represented her ever since.”
Seeks to Honor Indians
“To me, art is a very special place, but it is becoming much more business oriente·d, so much more commercialized and political,” says Barbera. “Some people will put their art on everything from ash trays to T-shirts. That seems so sad to me. Now, of course, it’s only my opinion, but to me that is a prostitution of art. I will never be rich from art. I have a simple goal: to be known as someone who loves my art and my subject matter-the Native American Indian-and to be recognized as someone who truly seeks to memorialize their life and culture.
Barbera’s father and brother were monument restorers, repairing and replacing stone figures and monuments on churches and buildings in the Nev; Jersey area. “My father had a tough time making a living, and though I wanted to be an artist, he thought I should become a secretary and get a payched< every Friday.” At age 14, she entered and won an arL contest, but when her father learned that lessons would still cost money, the idea died. “My father thought that since I won, it would be free, but it wasn’t, so that ended that.
Fast forward to World War II, Barbera’s uncle (her father’s brother) was in the Italian Army.
He was captured and brought to a prisoner of war camp in San Bernardino, Calif. “My father wanted to visit his brother. He came to California and loved it. It was like he remembered his homeland, with the vineyards and similar countryside. We went back and forth between the East and West Coasts many, many times before the family settled here.”
But in the meantime. Marie met her husband, Frank, on a blind date. set up by her cousin, at a beach on the Jersey shore, where she was not even allowed to be. The two were 15 years old. Frank ( also from an Italian background) was a smooth character with black silk suits and gold. He was the rich kid with the house on the beach. “Oh, no,” Frank hurriedly interrupts. “We had a house on the beach, but we never stayed in it. It was always rented out and we just serviced and looked after it.” At 18 they eloped and went to live in an uncle’s cellar, since he was the only family member who would still talk to them. Frank joined the U.S. Army, and Marie struggled to make a living by working at sales in local stores. Ultimately, her father relented and invited them to California, and we just fell in love with it, too, and moved here,” they agreed.
We arrived June L 1960, my daughter’s third birthday, and we had a second daughter six years later. I never planned to be an artist because first, I was raised to be a mom, and second, I never imagined that I could be good enough to make anything out of art. Frank opened a successful upholstery business in Escondido, Calif., and they raised their family. Frank has since sold the business and today he works closely with Marie. helping her in the studio and organizing their tours of shows around the country.
She constantly has four or five pieces going at the same time. “If you focus on only one. you can over-work it or even get bored with it. I may be working on one piece and then just glance over at another and immediately see how to solve a problem I have been having with a shoulder on the other guy,” she says. In addition to an extensive inventory of pieces, she has more than 80 life-size and larger works on display aound the country.
I only take one large commission each year because I do not use a point-up man, ( a procedure using a computer to create a large-size model from a smaller sculpture). I have been approached many times to use that procedure, but l just can’t do it, even though it would save a lot of time and leave me free to take more commissions” Barbera says. “I don’t care how big the piece is, every little bit of it has come from my hands. I couldn’t put my name on it otherwise.” In addition, she keeps her limited editions small in number, generally 10-50.
Barbera is in her studio, looking. clearly with love in her eyes, at a model that will become a sculpture of Ida Ann Wilcox. Through research, the Barberas believe that Ida Ann was the only survivor of a massacre of the Bannock tribe in the late 19th century. She was found, still sudding the breast of her dead mother, by two Mormon families who took her in, raised and educated her. She married an ex-officer of the Union Army and she became Ida Ann Wilcox,” says Frank. Today, one of the Barbera’ s daughters is married to a descendant of Ida Ann Wilcox, and they have a little daughter-Sophia Angelena Wilcox.
“I am so blessed,” says Marie, almost in tears. “just think, over the years, l have sculpted so many young Indian children and, finally, one of them has come to life in my little granddaughter.”
But in the meantime, Marie met her husband, Frank, on a blind date, set up by her cousin, at a beach on the Jersey shore, where she was not even allowed to be. The two were 15 years old. “Frank (also from an Italian background) was a smooth character with black silk suits and gold. He was the rich kid with the house on the beach.” “Oh, no,” Frank hurriedly interrupts. “We had a house on the beach, but we never stayed in it. It was always rented out and we just serviced and looked after it.” At 18 they eloped and went to live in an uncle’s cellar, since he was the only family member who would still talk to them. Frank joined the U.S. Army, and Marie struggled to make a living by working at sales in local stores. Ultimately, her father relented and invited them to California, “and we just fell in love with it, too, and moved here,” they agreed.
“We arrived June 1, 1960, my daughter’s third birthday, and we had a second daughter six years later. I never planned to be an artist because first, l was raised to be a mom, and second, I never imagined that I could be good enough to make anything out of art.” Frank opened a successful upholstery business in facondido, Calif., and they raised their family. Frank has since sold the business and today he works dosely with Marie, helping her in the studio and organizing their tours of shows around the country.
Paul Sinclair is a free–lance writerr living in San Diego.