Image: Dorothy Gill Barnes in her studio. Photo by Tom Grotta, courtesy browngrotta arts.
Innovative contemporary basketmaker and fibre sculptor Dorothy Gill Barnes, age 93, passed away peacefully on 23 November 2020 after a short battle with COVID-19. Here we share an obituary from Rhonda Brown, co-curator, browngrotta arts, which represents Barnes work. Barnes was known for developing a distinct working process that included scarring trees that had been marked for eventual removal and returning years later, after the trees had been cut, to harvest the scarred and overgrown bark for use in her baskets. This process enabled her to create dendroglyphs—literally, “tree drawings” — in which tree and time became her collaborators. “The unique properties I find in bark, branches, roots, seaweed, and stone suggest a work process to me,” Barnes said. "I want this problem solving to be evident in the finished piece.”
Image: Dorothy Gill Barnes outside her home in Ohio. Photo by Tom Grotta, courtesy browngrotta arts.
Born in Iowa, and a longtime resident of the Columbus, Ohio area, Barnes studied at Coe College, Minneapolis School of Art and Cranbrook Academy, as well as at the University of Iowa, where she earned BA and MA degrees in art education. Barnes taught fibers as an adjunct faculty member at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, from 1966 until her retirement from university teaching in 1990. Throughout much of her career, Barnes was a sought-after teacher, participating in residencies and workshops in Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Canada, as well as throughout the United States. Barnes’ early influences were the artist and teacher Ruth Mary Papenthein, who taught at Ohio State University, and Dwight Stump, an Ohio-based traditional basketmaker. She also credited the works of John McQueen and Ed Rossbach as spurring her experiments using natural materials to make contemporary sculpture.
Image: Dorothy Gill Barnes. Photo by Tom Grotta, courtesy browngrotta arts.
Barnes’ technical investigations placed her at the forefront of contemporary fiber art. She used electric tools to expand the scale, scope and complexity of her pieces and she credited power equipment as the source for ideas that handwork alone would not have suggested. She was comfortable incorporating nails, metal wire and staples along with traditional woven assembly methods. In all of her sculptures, Barnes sought to create structures that honored the growing things from which they came, her materials “respectfully harvested from nature.” Like Rossbach and McQueen, she prized experimentation, spontaneity, inventiveness. She continued to expand her artistic practice into her 90s, as a visiting artist working with students in glass in the Department of Art at Ohio State University until 2018.
A Fellow of the American Craft Council, Barnes received lifetime achievement awards from the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC and the National Basketry Organization, among many other awards. Her work is in the collections of the Columbus Museum of Art and the de Young Museum of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco among others. In Nature, a comprehensive retrospective, was held at the Mansfield Arts Center in 2018.