Becca Barnet's Gibbes residency lets her express her wild side 

Natural Instinct

click to enlarge Barnet's work varies from large commercial pieces to small, intricate works, like this piece, "Camouflaged Fish"

Images by Becca Barnet/Courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art

Barnet's work varies from large commercial pieces to small, intricate works, like this piece, "Camouflaged Fish"

Depending on where you've seen it, Becca Barnet's art can go to two extremes. Through her commercial art design company Sisal Creative, Barnet typically creates large-scale pieces that decorate hotels and restaurants. Perhaps you've noticed the 8,000 nails hand-hammered into a 7-foot-wide board to create Butcher & Bee's logo in their Morrison Drive location. Or maybe you've seen the antique tobacco baskets (with portions made out of brass using the same method of fabrication), which adorn the Cigar Factory's lobby and elevator vestibules. These kinds of commercial pieces are attractive but minimal, designed to highlight the room they're in more than draw attention to themselves. In these cases, Barnet and her team prefer to sacrifice detail in exchange for scale.

But in her personal art, Barnet's tastes are far more intricate, and they tend to be about as far from hotels and restaurants as you can get. She's a trained taxidermist with a deep love for natural history, and her pieces combine both of those interests into striking, almost impossibly detailed pieces. The animals that often populate Barnet's work are startlingly real, with every hair perfectly in place and so lifelike that they seem ready to leap from the stands or frames they inhabit.

"When I do sculpture or painting I tend to get really detailed and really into the minutiae," Barnet says. "I think for me it's about scale. In my commercial work, usually what we're doing is making very large installations that occupy big spaces. But I'm really attracted to miniatures and smaller things. When I was little I used to collect miniatures, so on a personal level it brings back memories to make smaller work. I love the kind of natural history museums that have hundreds of small specimens in one case."

That's not to say that Barnet doesn't find satisfaction in her commercial work. It's a job where she's able to use her passion to make a living, and she's proud of the pieces her company has created.

"I think one of the things that makes Sisal Creative interesting is that everything we make commercially is influenced by what we're interested in," she says. Sisal Creative, by the way, is comprised solely of Barnet and Kaleigh Hastings, the company's principal designer and project manager. "We're not just making stuff that other people want to see; we're trying to take the customer's vision and blend it with our own interests and skill set. We blend personal and commercial successfully," says Barnet.

click to enlarge Becca Barnet is the woman behind sisal creative, a design and fabrication studio
  • Becca Barnet is the woman behind sisal creative, a design and fabrication studio

But in order to make her company successful, Barnet has to keep up with what artwork seems to be popular, and right now, she says the big trend is minimalism, so that's the milieu she works in. "I think that to stay relevant, we've lent ourselves towards minimal design," she says, "And when you work large scale, it tends to lend itself to minimalism anyway, just because of the size of the pieces. You want to see how you can elevate the space but not take away from all the elements in the room."

On the personal front, Barnet is about to get back to the natural art she loves as part of a five-day residency at the Gibbes Museum of Art. During her time there, she's planning to get started on some pieces for an October show in her hometown of Spartanburg. And she plans to gain some inspiration by wandering the halls of the museum and taking in some of the exhibits already on display.

"I think one of the best ways to learn how to create is to mimic someone's work," she says. "You find that technique in art schools where you do a master copy. I don't think it's proper to call it your own, but you can learn an infinite amount from copying someone else. It almost puts you in their mindset."

So if you drop by the museum during Barnet's residency, you might see her in her first-floor studio, or you might catch her with her sketchpad, recreating a work by Mark Catesby or Walton Ford. "I'm just taking some time to make something for myself because my work is usually more commercially based," she says. "I put a lot of myself into everything I make, but I don't really have the chance to make a lot of stuff that comes directly from my brain, so I'm kind of excited to see what happens."

Though her goal is certainly to create as much artwork as possible, Barnet says she doesn't really feel an urgency to produce during the residency. "I guess there's always a little pressure involved when people are watching you make work," she says. "But I'm pretty good at keeping my options open and just seeing what comes out of it."


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