Etched in Permanence


Ken Barnes
Pigments of the Imagination

At Shift through Dec. 27th

Ken Barnes became smitten with the majesty of stone as a young rock climber  adventuring around Washington.

Now, you could say, he’s transferred his handholds onto the cutting, chiseling and sanding equipment in his Seattle sculpture studio, where various and interesting chunks of stone await his refining and shaping them into art.

After Ken retired from climbing he found he missed touching stone—a void that led him to his sculpture practice.  As an artist, what keeps him coming back to stone as a preferred medium, he says, “is that it’s a natural material that’s infinite in variety.  I’d prefer that it wasn’t so heavy—it would be nice if it weighed half as much—but its hardness allows me to cut really fine details or make really highly polished surfaces. There are so many things I can do with it and still leave part of it as natural as it came out of the ground.”

Fellow sculptors who share Ken’s passion for such a challenging material—and who refer to themselves as “stoners”—can easily be misunderstood.  He says a colleague of his fell into a two-week depression after it was suggested to her that she might have made her 7-foot-tall, 3000-pound piece out of Styrofoam.

A visitor to Ken’s studio, after seeing his impressive collection of diamond-bladed saws, chisels and electric carving tools, however, might quickly realize that a modern sculptor’s tool bench allows a wide latitude to for re-shaping Nature’s most resistant material.

The fine points of Ken’s stone carving and his love of variety and color in stone are on full display in his newest Shift show, which is paired with by Carmi Weingrod’s stone rubbings and travel notes from her recent residency in Cappadocia, Turkey.

As Ken points out, the sculpture greats of ancient Greece and Rome sought out plain marble to draw attention to the aesthetics of form and texture.  Ken goes the opposite direction in creating pieces like his multi-colored, intricately veined “Offering,” a boat-shaped vessel made of a greenish Brucite with many visible plugs and swirls of metamorphosed trace elements.  “It’s like someone took a hunk of gelatin and mixed in all these semi-transparent colors,” Ken says.

Ken again features complexity in stone in his “Orbicular oYo,” a pale agate bowl perched trophy-like atop a black marble mount.  Once a ball from the bottom of an ocean, the stone was a gift to Ken that he had lying around for years until he was inspired to shape it into a pleasing form.

Minimalism is Ken’s basic approach to his work.  He likes to pull out the form that he can imagine inside his materials so that he makes the fewest possible cuts to achieve it.  Thus, a flat, brick-shaped piece of red pipestone was transformed into a shallow, canoe-like piece called “Voyage, a tube of bluish-green marble suggestive of a heron poised in the hunt for a fish became “Pause,” and a fish-like piece of black marble was tweaked into a sculpture called “Lure.”

The permanence of stone gives Ken the luxury to literally to chip away at his carvings over time.  With his “Green oYo,” Ken took another pass at a piece he had created years before but had never quite mentally finished—until now.

Both his “oYo” pieces are named after the middle letters of Toyoto—a town in Japan, not the car—where Ken once studied stone carving.

By far Ken’s most ambitious sculpture in the show is a long, rounded column of basalt called “Quill” that he has ingeniously hung inside a steel frame.  He was inspired to do so because he just could not envision it mounted in a more traditional manner.   His favorite piece, however, is the much smaller-scaled “Clef,” a graceful wing of black marble mounted on wood that looks like it’s taking flight.

18 years ago when Ken took up stone carving he says he thought it would be something he’d do for a few years before moving on to the next thing.  But, he acknowledges, “I find that it takes over more and more of my life and psychic energy and that’s a good thing, I think.”