by shermakaye bass
reprinted from the austin american-statesman
thursday, october 28, 1999
arbara irwin is an odd bird; a slight, unassuming woman who surrounds herself with birdcage sculpture, victoriana collage and found-object installations.
the first time i met her, she made me slightly dizzy. her multitude of talents hit me like a first glance at joseph's dreamcoat: pieces of silk here, snippets of wool there, dashes of calico and gingham and velvet chintz. so much busy-ness brought into one place that before the ``wow'' had a chance to hit me, i was paralyzed by all the color and information. then i looked. and i looked some more. and slowly the patchwork came into focus. a multicolored dreamcoat -- that's barbara. that's her personality, and that's her work.
a self-taught artist with an associate's degree in interior design, barbara is nothing if not diligent. our acquaintance began several months ago when she sent me photos of her found-object sculptures. i was intrigued but not convinced; i didn't get it. she didn't let up. she sent me note cards and updates, interspersed with an occasional telephone call. i tried to put her off. not because i didn't like her art -- in fact, the more i looked at it, the more i got it -- but because i felt beleaguered.
and then, be damned, i saw myself. i thought about my own no-holds-barred approach. haven't i bugged editors? haven't i pestered friends and foes? and isn't it impossible for most of the people i respect to accept the word ``no.''
i agreed to come to her house.
when i arrived at the modest cottage in south austin, the smell of mint and rose oil swished around the furniture, lingered in the air like an invisible, levitating cat. i surveyed the collection of figurines made into sculpture: tiny antique hands, pieces of doll and hardware, chipped porcelain flowers -- suggestions of softness from another time, encaged or enmeshed in rugged materials like chicken wire or a rat trap, or captured in a glass dome from an old-fashioned clock. against another wall were dozens of birdcages -- all shapes, styles and sizes -- containing miniature animals in odd configurations, a wedding-cake bride and groom, a vignette of antique furniture and a jetson-era boy on the telephone, a teensy plain metal canoe, pieces of engine.
through the living room was the sewing room, with squares of country fabrics, fragments of quilt, old dolls and doll clothes, impromptu sculptures and installations blossoming from shelves and walls. in back of the house was a sort of garden room - a room of windows, with reams of makeshift shelves holding more vignettes of gewgawery. somehow, the whole jumble of what barbara had done with her junk coalesced into an astonishingly beautiful gallery.
i meandered from room to room; i saw more collages and sculptures, more herb tinctures and handmade clothes, and out back, a garden filled with more strange and compelling sculpture. and i thought, my god this woman is martha stewart with no budget. she's like holly hobby meets dolley madison meets a good witch from grimm's. . . .
when we finally sat down in her kitchen, i still felt dizzy from all the busy-ness, all the . . . brilliance. when i finally tore my eyes away from the stuff on her walls, she was telling me about one of the pivotal events in her life: building a sailboat, piece by piece, with her ex-husband and then sailing it to hawaii. her stories kind of melded together in unlikely unity. she's been a montessori teacher, an interior designer, a department store buyer, an artist, an herbalist, a seamstress, a housecleaner, a gardener, a sculptor . . . ooops. uh. barbara, can you slow down a minute? i think i need another glass of that mint tea. . . .
well. i came back a second time and then a third, and that last afternoon we talked for a long spell. we talked about travels and dreams and art and long-long-ago things. we talked about friends and being nice. about getting your work out there, at all costs. barbara has been in several group exhibits at gallery lombardi, but she doesn't really show that often. i think that's a shame. i think she's really good and should show more, and i say so.
but it's hard, she explains, when you do so many things, and quite frankly, you do them very well. it's hard to stay focused on one thing. it's hard to make a living. it's hard to . . .
i knew what she meant. oh, how i knew.
later, i helped her move her gas heater out of the shed behind her house, and into the little cottage, which was cold. i learned that she didn't have ac or central heat, and that basically barbara didn't have much money. but that she lived rich.
and she does. she lives with all the good things in her dolly madison/holly hobby/martha stewart/five-and-dime-shopper house. she lives real, on a quiet street with a garden and birdcage sculptures and collages. she lives true, in a world made of art and dreams.