In this series, the Star-Observer sits down with area artists to learn about the art they create, the things that inspire them and the community they’ve found.
ROBERTS -- Barabara Bend’s workspace at Color Crossing is an explosion of color. Red, blue, green and patterned fabric line the back wall. Objects of all kinds line the shelves and desks, with collections of zippers and other materials in abundance.
Bend is not alone in the space. Color Crossing’s backroom comprises a community of artists, each spread out across the brightly lit room in their own stations with their own mediums.
Bend focuses on fiber sculpture. She’s been working with the three-dimensional for 25 years, though she evolved to add techniques from felting to welding.
She earned a degree in art at a time when fibers weren’t part of the education,she said. Bend quickly learned she didn’t want to do art as a living, and instead taught elementary and middle school science. Throughout her career, though, she always produced art on the side.
What is it about art that has drawn you to it?
I’ve always made stuff. Even as a little kid, I’d just be making stuff. I always wanted to make stuff out of nothing. My dad used to say, 'You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” and I kept thinking, “I think I can.”
I like the idea of making things from things that were thrown away. I remember making things for boyfriends when I was in high school, and they were like why are you giving me this stuffed animal. “Because I like it, I made it and I like you.” They didn’t get it.
How did you learn how to do some of these different art forms?
By the time I graduated from college I was literally clumping canvas and gluing it on campus. So I was moving toward the three-dimensional without even realizing that’s where I was going. I framed a piece of fabric and then I sewed fabric onto it and the stitching became the line and the fabric became the color. They would be all hand-stitched.
They’d take me about a year to do one. I did about 10, and then I had kids and they were in everything and I couldn’t lay a big thing out. So I thought I’ve got to go small. I actually started spinning. I could have my spinning wheel in the corner and I could sit down and spin, and stop at any point. I could stick it in the corner, it didn’t get ruined.
Then I got natural dying -- so I’d go and cut weaves and cut different things and cook them up in the kitchen. Then I tried selling them and that was OK, but I realized I’d go to all these places and I’d sell them at art fairs and people would say, so remember that color you had last year. I’m like I’m so done with that color, you want me to make that color again? That’s when I realized no, I am not a marketer. I do not want to find the color that people are going to like, I do not want to know that.
I wove fabric and blankets and upholstery and different things, and then moved from that to the felting. And then I got into wrapping, and when I got into wrapping that was like, I love this. That sounds really funny, but it’s very primal. Baskets are made by wrapping. We wrap our dead, we swaddle our children, we wrap our headscarves, we wrap our bodies. We wrap our food. Wrapping is this archetype, it really kind of struck me.
Now when you look at my work you wouldn’t necessarily call it wrapping, but it is where it derived from.
Where do you get your inspiration for your work?
It depends. Sometimes I’m compelled to do something and I don’t know why until it’s done and then I realize what it is. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of container things. I started out with kind of the human form and then I moved into animals, because I kind of like the animals. Now I’ve been into more abstract forms, like nutshells.
I learn from my work as I go. Stories, people’s lives, issues. I may make something with a specific idea behind it.
I did one piece where, to me it was about the dead zone in the mouth of the Mississippi River where all the pollution was. I had these zippers come down in this really dark area here and the woman standing up holding the phosphorus that’s choking us out. That’s what the piece was, and I thought that’s kind of a bad feeling to have that piece being about the dead zone. A friend of mine came up that had cancer and she said, "I love that piece." She said I know exactly what that is, it’s like my chemo. For her, she was just like yes, I get this.
So I try to be somewhat careful about labeling, so if something speaks to them, that’s theirs. I don’t have to give them the story.
What impact do you hope your art has?
It’s pretty important to me actually, the impact it has. I used to teach. In a way it’s continuing to teach. It’s about two things. It’s about digging in deep into my own self to find what’s there, and then putting it into a form. And if I do it right, people will respond to it and it will become their own. Sometimes like the raven, for instance, a woman saw this and she said, “Oh, I love this one.” Then she said, “Oh no, oh no, it’s got hands. I can’t stand that, just can’t have hands.”
This woman was very much like human beings have done such terrible damage to the earth, I just can’t stand hands. And of course, I love hands, I think hands are so important. And I thought a long time, like maybe that raven shouldn’t have hands. Then I’m like no because the story is a human story, it’s taking an animal and making it a human story, it’s going to have hands.
So people react sometimes negatively to the decisions you make, and sometimes people walk by and they go, “I don’t get this at all.”
What do you enjoy most about creating?
I like the solitude, but I also really like the materials. And also I like the idea of expressing something. Like I’ll see the color on the snow, all the different colors in the snow, for instance, and the reflections of the shadows and the shapes and I want to take that and I want to recreate that somehow. So there’s lot of things. I take a lot of photographs of things just because they’re so beautiful. It connects me to my feelings too, it connects me to what I really believe.
You've developed a community at Color Crossing, do you think it’s important to have?
Yeah I do. This community has been built. Patty had the building, and Judy the weaver. Judy is a retired teacher, Vicki is a retired teacher, I’m a retired teacher, and we would talk about “Wouldn’t it be nice to … Wouldn’t it be nice too …?” When Patty opened this up, we started renting studio space from her, and then we did shows. Everything’s on wheels here. We do a holiday show and we do a spring show. We roll things around, we open things up and make it this big gallery in here.
The other thing is we have some really good connections with the textile center in Minneapolis. There’s deeper connections in the fiber community beyond here, which also is pretty great because there’s an amazing fiber community.
How does it feel to see involvement in the arts in these smaller, local communities?
I think that it’s always existed in some way. It was either in the church basement, where they’re making quilts or they’re making prayer shawls. Or the people who get together in their homes. Or the woodworkers who are out in their barns. Or the metalworkers who are on the farms. It’s always been there.
When you do art it can be a very lonely thing. So building a community or being part of a community becomes an important part. So you go home and you do your work and you come back and you’re stuck and you share and people help you. Or you complete it and they go, this is so great, and give you ideas for the next one.
That supportive community is just really important. There are artists that are all up and down the valley, and there’s some amazing things. And some of it’s just heartful, wonderful, home kind of things, and some of it’s some really highly creative and innovative stuff. These small arts communities are really important to supporting that.
The other thing I think is that we’re living longer and healthier lives, so there’s a lot of us who are retired who are like I’ve always wanted to, and actually had a chance to do it and pursue it.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.