History and Humanity in the Art of Marie Barbera

published in Decor and Style

Marie Barbera was not at Bear’s Paw on October 5, 1877, trapped, exhausted and mourning the deaths of hundreds of loved ones. She did not hear Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, a Native American tribe of the Wallowa Valley in Northwest Oregon, as he gave his speech of surrender to the U.S. Army: “… Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”

Born a first generation Italian-American in New Jersey, 59 years after Chief Joseph’s speech, Barbera seems an unlikely witness to the tragedy at Bear’s Paw. However, Barbera identifies with the Native American heroes of history and mythology so strongly that they are the sole subject matter of the bronze sculptures that she has created since the 1980s. Her favorite work to date, Will Fight No More Forever, is of Chief Joseph, who bravely led 800 people over 1,100 miles and through four states in a desperate attempt to preserve the Nez Perce spirit.

Although she cannot explain her attraction to a culture that is so different from the one in which she was raised, Barbera can say this: “Native Americans’ voices should be heard, and people should know what they’ve been through.” The veined and weathered hands, the painstakingly detailed beaded clothing and the proud or sorrowful expressions on her sculptures’ faces do not fail to communicate. “I don’t want my sculptures to look like stereotypical warriors,” Barbera continues, “but like real people. I try to show strength, beauty and sensitivity. That can be hard to accomplish, especially in bronze, which is cold and hard. I try to put the soul in the eyes of the piece.”

Barbera’s relationship with Native American culture began in 1960 when she and her husband Frank moved to California and toured the Southwest. “At first, not being Native American, I didn’t feel it was my place to depict the culture,” Barbera says. “I spoke to my friends from the reservation, who told me that if I honored them my art would be accepted.”

Respecting the Native Americans she portrays is one of Barbera’s top priorities. “I don’t get into the details of the ceremonies because they are sacred,” she says. “In my work I choose to represent moments that lead up to, or follow, the ritual act, rather than the sacred moment. For example, in Sundance I show the High Priest painting the legs of a young man before ordaining him into manhood. If I’m sculpting someone from history, I do a lot of research for authenticity. I want my sculptures to look as close as possible to the real person they depict.” Barbera also strives for accuracy in depicting clothing and accessories. Such details are much appreciated by her collectors.

Subject matter ideas for Barbera’s works are born from reading history books, biographies and legends, and from talking to her Native American friends. When something she reads or hears intrigues her, she begins the process of converting the story into an image, which may range in size from 18 inches high to a monumental 12 feet, and may serve as a bookend or a fountain.

First Barbera creates a clay maquette. “I use an oil clay that is reusable for casting,” she explains. “I prepare the clay for the mold by creating all of the details of the piece. For small details I like to use dental tools. For heavy modeling I use wooden tools. It’s a messy job, but it’s a labor of love.”

For models, Barbera has used a variety of sources, including friends, videos and even her own grandson as the sleeping child in Once Upon the Plains. “Sometimes all I need to look at is an arm or a leg,” she says, “and I can use myself as a model. Most of what I sculpt comes out of my imagination.”

When she is satisfied with the clay maquette, Barbera makes a silicone mold. “It’s a liquid rubber that solidifies over the clay,” she explains. “We make a mother mold out of Plaster of Paris over the rubber mold. When the mold is dry, we open it up and remove the clay, and we have a negative image of the sculpture. We then pour liquid wax into the cavity and let it solidify.”

Next, the wax positive images goes to the foundry, where 12 coats of fine plaster are applied around it. Each layer takes 24 hours to dry. The piece goes into a kiln heated to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. As the wax melts, it escapes through a funnel attached to the hard shell housing. Bronze is then melted down and poured into the mold. When the bronze solidifies, the shell is broken. Each piece may be made up of several molds, as many as 12 pieces, all welded together.

“When a piece comes out of the kiln, it is very brassy looking and needs to be chased and prepared for patina,” Barbera explains. “The colors are achieved using traditional patinas that are torch-etched by a specialist onto the bronze. I like using color because it gives the metal warmth and looks more authentic because Native Americans are a very colorful subject. The beads are painted by hand. Finally, the color is sealed and we hot wax it to give it a high sheen or a mat finish. We mount the sculpture to a base, which can be anything from walnut to sandstone, depending on what the collector chooses. It’s intriguing to watch the process from a brick of clay to a finished piece.”

Barbera’s works are not only a tribute to Native American nobility, creativity and perseverance, but to her own as well. “I will do this right up until the time I die. I create every day, even when we go away. When I had surgery, I had someone bring me clay on a tray. It is such a great satisfaction and so many people are interested in it. I’m constantly learning about both the culture and creating art. I just want to be remembered for this one particular subject matter and for a love of the people.”

Marie Barbera is currently featured in Robert Wright Fine Art Gallery in Escondido, California, Kiva Fine Art Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Heritage Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona and Eagle Spirit Gallery in Pinnacle Peak, Arizona. Her public works include Waters from the Banks of White River at the Center for Leadership Studies in Escondido and several life-size pieces throughout Southern California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Ohio. She has been featured at the Tucson Museum of Art and the Western Heritage Museum in Wyoming. Her collectors include Vic Damone and Rena Rowan.

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