Meet an Artist: James Barnhill

James Barnhill, with his art (Greensboro Four) on display at the African American Atelier in Greensboro Cultural Center on Monday, November 21, 2011, in Greensboro, NC.James Barnhill, an associate professor in the department of visual and performing arts at North Carolina A&T State University, as an exhibition, entitled The Art of James Barnhill, on display at the African American Atelier, Inc. This exhibition features 25 pieces by Barnhill of drawings, paintings and sculptures. (names and location CQ by jw) (Jerry Wolford, news-record.com)

James Barnhill, with his art (Greensboro Four) on display at the African American Atelier in Greensboro Cultural Center on Monday, November 21, 2011, in Greensboro, NC.James Barnhill, an associate professor in the department of visual and performing arts at North Carolina A&T State University, as an exhibition, entitled The Art of James Barnhill, on display at the African American Atelier, Inc. This exhibition features 25 pieces by Barnhill of drawings, paintings and sculptures. (names and location CQ by jw) (Jerry Wolford, news-record.com)

Greensboro News & Record
Greensboro, NC
Thursday, November 17, 2011

WHAT HE DOES

I am a sculptor primarily, although, I do draw and paint. My passion is the figure. I do life figure drawing. I work in clay from the life model usually.

For a lot of my pieces the ultimate ending is in bronze. I work in the clay, and then I take the molds to the foundry, and they coat them in the bronze.

I paint in oil. I enjoy drawing in situ. I’ve done some seascapes, not touristy stuff. In my house I have a painting of an oil tanker and the oil containers on the shore with the coast guard station. I have a picture I painted of three tugboats at the Morehead City Port Authority. I did one recently of a cloud formation over the Cape Fear River. I like the coast.

PASSING ON KNOWLEDGE

I teach basic drawing, anatomy and figure drawing, sculpture and 3-D design at N.C. A&T University. It seems to be natural for me to do. I like to explain what I am doing and how I am doing it. Some artists need to be alone, and I am perfectly free to do it in the presence of whoever wants to watch. You are up front. It’s really your show. You are performing a bit. Hopefully I am passing on knowledge and information.

I teach a Thursday night class at the Cultural Center with Art Alliance. It’s small figures from the live model class, which is actually sculpting from the live model. I typically work along with students. I am doing a similar piece. That does two things. One: it keeps me occupied and from being bored out of my mind because I couldn’t just hover. And it gives a visual for the students to see how to translate flesh into clay.

HIS EXHIBIT AT THE ATELIER

There are 25 pieces. It spans 30 years from pieces I did in graduate school in 1982 and 1983 to just this past summer. I have a 6-foot-8 muse sculpture with the idea that she could be in a garden or a park setting.

I started her right around the first of May and went through August to finish. I worked on it every day for four, six or eight hours. She’s not named. She’s doing something with her hands. She’s making something, and I make things. I am a maker. This kind of sums up my frustration with the times because we as a people don’t make things anymore. I find that troubling.

I have had for years this idea of muses and the mother of the muses — Mnemosyne. That is where we get the word mnemonic device. Her name means memory. I think that is something that we could pay attention to. Today people just look something up and then, bam, it’s gone. There’s no discernible thought going on.

THE END OF A MARRIAGE

About a year ago, I finished up this five- or six-page poem about the demise of my marriage. I have had fun with it. It’s been therapeutic.

Divorce is never easy, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I was married for 23 years.

I am illustrating the poem through a collage. I have divided it into 20 sections. I thought it would be fun and clever if I can find the right things to illustrate it. At some point, I guess I will display it somehow or somewhere. It’s the thing that most interests me at the moment.

PUBLIC WORKS OF ART

Usually, I really like commissions. Most recently I did a bust of Kay Yow that went down to Raleigh at N.C. State University. Before that I did the General Greene downtown. I did Minerva at UNCG and February One at A&T. I have stuff in California and Pennsylvania.

I have one in the hopper. It is a memorial for the Contrabands and Freedmen’s Cemetery in Alexandria, Va. There are like 1,800 graves. It was rediscovered in the 1980s. Alexandria is trying to memorialize it. I have an idea I think would be great but we will see. The cemetery is where a huge number of freed and escaped slaves are buried. During the Civil War, if slaves were able to reach Alexandria, which was controlled by the Union, they were free. But so many of them were so destitute and sick they died. From what I know, and I haven’t researched it extensively, it must have been like a refugee camp.

(The sculpture) would be a man, woman and child looking ahead — a small family group making their way to freedom. It would be like crossing the Jordan River. Biblically, that’s freedom, but it’s like crossing into heaven, a better place.

So often I find these sort of memorials are often overly literal. They all draw attention to all of the hardships and sorrow and the very bad stuff. I am saying how we move beyond that to something with hope.

— As told to Erin McClanahan Rainwater