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Barbara Barber, the queen of quilting

By Kristina Dorsey

Publication: The Day

Published January 21. 2013 4:00AM

Some artists have a signature - a certain sensibility evident in each piece they create.

Not Barbara W. Barber.

Her quilts that are featured in a current exhibition at the Hoxie Gallery at Westerly Public Library are an entertainingly eclectic lot. Some suggest a stately, traditional take on the art form. Others fizz with a modern attitude. And in some cases, Barber's art - like the artist herself - toys with a sassy sense of humor.

"I consider it a real privilege that God gives me a picture in here (she points to her head), however silly or good it is, and I can put it out and other people can enjoy it as well," she says.

The Westerly Library is just one of the multitude of venues where her work has enjoyed the spotlight. Four of Barber's quilts were selected by the National Quilt Society's Museum in Paducah, Ky., for a 2011 show focusing on the revitalization of the "Broderie Perse" technique that involves applique embroidery.

Another of the Westerly resident's pieces was part of the 25th anniversary show in 2012 at the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Mass.

The Hoxie exhibition showcases just a few of the pieces that Barber, 77, has created over her decades of award-winning work. She sewed and did some patchwork as a child but started quilting in earnest when she got married and had children.

"I made quilts for the kids growing up. When child number six got on the school bus, I figured I could do it full time, and I have. I've been fortunate in that I've been a kept woman," she says with a laugh about her husband, Bill, a retired engineer.

On a good day, she quilts five hours. Most days, though, she quilts for an hour or two "just because the business of living sucks a lot out of you," she says.

There is only one instance where Barber kept exact track of how long it took to create a given quilt. "The Tree of Life" required more than 600 hours of quilting and 400 hours of appliquing.

For several of the pieces on view at the Hoxie Gallery through Jan. 30, Barber used family photos as a template. In some, she painted the images - her mother as a toddler next to her baby sister, for instance - onto fabric. She then invented and quilted era-appropriate wallpaper and carpeting for the background.

For another project, she created a crazy quilt of pictures, each surrounded by fabric made to look like a frame. Each photo has a fascinating tale. One depicts Barber's paternal grandmother - who was a doctor, having graduated from medical school in 1898 - teaching a class of female medical students dissecting a cadaver at a homeopathic college.

Another photo shows one of her ancestors and some of his fellow Union soldiers. He was a physician in the New York City regiment and was captured during the Civil War. In prison camp, he requisitioned kerosene, saying he was going to use it for ticks and lice. Instead, he and some fellow prisoners covered the soles of their shoes with the kerosene so bloodhounds would have trouble following their scent when they escaped. It worked. The photo in Barber's quilt was taken just after the men made it back safely to Northern territory.

One Hoxie Gallery wall is devoted to her series of Harry Potter quilts. A fan of the books, Barber devised a quilt for each tome. These are how she imagines the characters in the novels - not how they appear in the films and, in one instance, not even how they appear in J.K. Rowling's writing.

"In 'The Prisoner of Azkaban,' J.K. Rowling says Buckbeak was a gray animal, but I think it's a typo. Doesn't it look better in those colors?" she says, gazing at the vibrant orange that mixes with shades of brown.

Easily the most humorous quilts in the exhibition are "character" pieces. Body-builder physiques are crafted onto two quilts, with holes cut out where the heads should be - allowing visitors to put their faces atop the super-toned bodies. The idea for those came when Barber was part of a quilting show held at the University of Rhode Island fieldhouse. Barber went down to check out the site and recalls a coed gym at the end of the building. ("I had forgotten how firm young thighs could be," she laughs.)

"They were going to shut the gym down while we had the quilt show, and so I thought, 'Well, we need quilts in front of the gym window to show what this is normally made for,'" she says.

They are extremely popular designs; Barber has even received Christmas cards from people who have taken photos of their faces peering through the quilts at various exhibitions.

Those quilts gave rise to another "character" series. Barber whipped up compositions based on people she sees regularly at Walmart. One is "American Gothic" gone 21st-century, with an elderly couple carrying a shopping bag with Pepto and, yes, Depends. The elastic stockings the woman wears - think Ruth Buzzi's old lady on "Laugh-In" - are actual stockings.

When it comes to Barber's quilts, it's not just the range of tone and subject matter that impresses; it's also the artistic methods she uses. For "Shalom," Barber based the image on a photo her granddaughter took of a father and son at Mystic River Park. Barber enlarged the picture manually, gridding it off, and it became the first quilt she painted.

"I started painting on fabric quite seriously after that, so that was a turning point," she says.

Barber took her cue for one color-charged quilt from a black-and-white newspaper photo. She had saved the picture for a long time because she didn't know how to execute the quilt. It was when she took a seminar from renowned quilter Caryl Bryer Fallert on string strip piecing on paper that she learned the method she needed.

"It meant that anything I could draw, I could now turn into a quilt. She opened up that possibility to me," she says.

Barber loved that technique, too, because it involves a lot of fabric.

She says, "You have to have a big pile to work from so you can get the exact color and the value in the right place. ... Good grief, a quilter loves muddling among fabrics!"

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