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Botanical bronze: At first, Bill Barrett was skeptical of sculpture in the garden, but is no more

Bill Barrett didn’t have a good experience early on with a sculpture show in the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.

As president of the Sculptors’ Guild of New York, he helped get 30 pieces set up in the garden in the 1970s, at the garden’s invitation, only to get a call barely a week after it opened asking him to remove all the artworks.

“The patrons didn’t like the sculptures competing with nature,” Barrett said.

But since he was telling the story from a bench at the entrance to the Santa Fe Botanical Garden on Museum Hill, where 16 of his works spanning a 40-year period had just been installed, it’s obvious the sour taste has subsided.

But it took some convincing to get the part-time Santa Fe/New York resident to agree to the show, said Clayton Bass, CEO of the Santa Fe Botanical Garden and curator of the show. “After a lot of arm-twisting and several bottles of Scotch, we finally got there,” he joked.

And it’s clear that the works complement, rather than compete with, the flowering thyme and cacti – and so much more – studding the gently rolling terrain.

Bass said he became aware of Barrett when co-curating the garden’s previous sculpture exhibition, “The Power of Place,” and that sculptor’s work rose to the top of the artists they were reviewing.

Barrett has had pieces installed in corporate headquarters, museums and universities around the world, and has had a host of solo exhibitions. His most recent show, The Bronze Touch, ran Feb. 11-March 12 at Taylor Graham in New York.

Bass said some of the things that impressed him about Barrett’s work was its sense of movement or dance of the abstract figures, some of which have the feel of calligraphy, with the complex swirls and twists of intertwining bronze.

Twirling his hands in the air like a symphony conductor, Barrett said that kind of gesture sometimes gives him a sense of how to put his sculptures together. Not surprisingly, he said that he’s a great fan of dance and of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

“When I was fulltime in New York, I went to the ballet all the time at Lincoln Center,” he said. “I think of how to express this. Not dance, but the idea of the balance of shapes.”

Upon a suggestion that he should see if any of his sculpture could be incorporated into choreography, Barrett confessed that he has fantasized about designing a stage set for dance.

His materials are often metal, but have a flow and dynamic that belie any expectation of hard edges and static lines.

“There’s a kind of lyrical, fluid quality – I love that about your work,” Bass told Barrett on a recent walk through the show. “How can you look gossamer when you’re also in bronze?”

Barrett said he’s gone through an evolution in the materials he has focused on: stainless steel in the ’60s, aluminum in the ’70s, bronze in the ’80s and marble in the past 10 years.

He was almost reverent as he described working on marble sculptures in Italy and driving into mountain mines to get the fabulous Carrara marble, proceeding past white walls while workers chipped out marble in the requested shapes. Wow, he said he thought, this is where Michelangelo got his marble!

Barrett said he probably makes some 20 to 30 models in bronze each year of his sculpture ideas, resulting in maybe one or two full-size sculptures. As he is playing with ideas, he often forms separate pieces, then links them together in different patterns.

His finished sculptures look different from every direction and, he confided, most could even be displayed in different positions, from horizontal to vertical.

A number of his pieces on display in the garden, some of which incorporate both steel and bronze, are influenced by the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, which was only 10 blocks away from Barrett’s New York City studio.

“I was striving to express the tragedy of the occasion in this manner to the public,” he said. “I tried to give it an uplifting manner; I don’t like depressing works. I tried to make something beautiful, but significant.”

Another work on display, “Stargate IV,” stemmed from an encounter with thymus cancer that had spread and needed to be scraped away from around his heart, Barrett said.

“I was coming out of rehab, seeing I was going to live now and went ‘yay’ like this,” he said, thrusting his fist into the air. And, indeed, the bronze sculpture has one section rising into the sky.

Some of his pieces have evolved from graffiti, Barrett said, calling that art form “some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen.”

Standing in front of “From the Heart,” a 2003 bronze piece, Bass commented, “I love the dynamic tension in the piece.”

Barrett responded, “Isn’t that what marriage is about?”

Actually, it was marriage that made Barrett a part-time Santa Fe resident. Some 27 years ago, he was having bronze castings done at the Shidoni Foundry in Tesuque, where Debora, daughter of the owner, was working.

During the recent garden tour, Debora Barrett was photographing the sculptures on display in preparation for a book about the exhibit. She also pointed out the jewelry she was wearing, which is based on his sculptural shapes and will be for sale during the show.

Asked about the exhibition’s title, “Visual Poetry,” Bass commented, “I like the idea of different disciplines jumping their perceived boundaries. Bill’s work is sending a very solid message, but we all interpret it differently.”

Barrett’s take on it? “They’re just words.”

But his reaction to seeing his work set against foliage, mountains and the brilliant New Mexico sky, with shadows and reflections moving across the surfaces, evokes more enthusiasm.

“Naturally, when Clayton met with me, I was very skeptical about the whole thing,” he said, referring back to his Bronx experience. “Now I’ve been completely changed in my feelings. I’m quite surprised at how well the work looks here … .

“It’s quite interesting because I’ve not seen the work in such a beautiful environment.”