What is an Artist?

Work of Art

Whether with wood, clay, or life, Barbara McCulla reveals the beauty beneath.

Photos by Luke Christopher

Warrenton artist Barbara McCulla’s creative story starts with wood and whittling, but that’s not where it has ended up.

When tracing back her journey, Barbara recalls whittling wood with the Northern Virginia Woodcarvers in Fairfax. Barbara was 17 when her mother first started taking her to the park to carve in the barn with the Woodcarvers and learn from them. In that barn, Barbara found her niche with the method of “relief”. Relief is the subtractive technique of carving away material to reveal the desired design. It creates the illusion that the final piece has been raised from its material, although the process is physically the opposite.

About ten years after moving to Warrenton, Barbara joined weekly classes at a local high school’s art studio to explore the art of pottery. “Working with dirt and turning it into something seemed miraculous to me,” she explained. With three babies at home, Barbara’s husband, Paul, and his support in encouraging her to go to class and get messy were pivotal to her joy. He recognized the importance of her taking time for herself.

Although the projects she made in that class are now demoted to being the dog’s food bowl, Barbara says “[the experience] was enough that I had a feel for how to use the wheel and knew that I really liked clay.”

The same way Barbara experienced turns in her journey from wood to clay, so did her life after a car accident that left her with chronic pain. The pain required big things from her, which included relinquishing her full-time work. It also affected her pottery, as working big pieces of clay or throwing (shaping pieces of clay on a pottery wheel) for a long time was no longer possible. “I couldn’t work with a lot of clay, it took too much shoulder and neck strength,” says Barbara.

With the pain that became a part of her life, Barbara had to discover what she could do, what it would look like, and what value it would bring her.

Then, ten years later, her son and his fiance made a request of her. For their wedding, they wanted their wedding favors to be in the form of small pots, handmade by Barbara.

The two-inch pots were little, but they were anything but small in how they altered Barbara’s life. Working with smaller amounts of clay was doable, and it led her to the discovery of a new technique.

“When you do 200 of something,” Barbara says, “you think, ‘what could I do a little differently here?’ I was looking for different finishes for the wedding pots, and that’s how I found sgraffito.” Sgraffito is the craft of scratching or carving away layers to decorate a piece of art. Similar to relief in woodcarving, with sgraffito pottery you paint your entire piece and “pull away parts [to reveal] the theme underneath,” she explains.

“There’s nothing that works like pottery for me in terms of being able to manage my pain and distract me,” Barbara says of her outlet, and sgraffito is especially compatible with her comfort levels as she can carve out the designs in her lap. It wasn’t long before the shelves in her home and the homes of her loved ones filled up with her creations, and it occurred to Barbara that this thing she loved with her whole being might be something that others would appreciate and find beauty in.

It was at the point of considering sharing her pottery with people outside of her circle that Barbara started posing the question to herself, “am I an artist?” It was almost like serving as an invisible gatekeeper to herself, questioning whether or not what she was doing qualified as true art. Being raised on crafts, drawn to nature, and always driven to translate what she sees into what she makes were not effective in getting her past the point of that question. Although all the factors that brought her to her current point added up to what she would identify as an artist in anyone else, it wasn’t until a friend saw the artistry in her that she could answer “yes” to her own question.

Barbara’s friend, whose art expertise she trusted, took Barbara’s pieces at the time to an art gallery in Cape Charles over the summer. Barbara consented to taking the step but she couldn’t bring herself to be there in person. “There’s a great deal of emotional risk,” Barbara recalls, based on the chance that someone will not find beauty in what you have thrown yourself into. Barbara’s courage in vulnerability paid off as they put in an order for 10 pieces on the spot.

Cape Charles was a transformational step for Barbara but it was still far from home. Life had closer things in store for her when a friend suggested that Jeanne-Marie Tufts might like her art for The Town Duck shop in Old Town Warrenton. After the idea was run by Jeanne-Marie, some six weeks later Barbara took the same breath that got her past the hump of sharing her pieces in Cape Charles that summer and brought what she had made to the shop. Jeanne-Marie immediately started selling Barbara’s creations.

Pondering on how she would have felt if people hadn’t embraced her art, Barbara knows that she would have continued regardless, “because it’s a story that I want to tell,” she says. In consideration of those who have experienced rejection in the face of sharing something they love doing, Barbara says, “Keep going, there’s room for the quirkiness, style, and message you have to share for all of us out there.”

“If you have a lot of pain,” Barbara shares, “you don’t want to waste that energy on something that you don’t love.” Barbara made something beautiful out of the obstacles that she encountered. It’s fitting that she connected with the style of relief all those years ago, because when parts of her life were carved away, she raised the beauty beneath.


Jaya Patil
About Jaya Patil 8 Articles
Jaya Patil is a freelance writer for Warrenton Lifestyle Magazine

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