If you look at Shawna Barnes’ photos on her social media pages and website, you can view her sculptural work in many stages and gain insight into her artistic process. However, what you don’t see – or at least, what I didn’t see until I recently visited her studio – is the volume of work all around her in her workspace. There are wall tiles, ornaments, and larger sculptures mid-process; paints, ribbons, tools, and the general evidence of daily art-making. Shawna is clearly dedicated to her craft.
Shawna N. M. Barnes began making art when her military career ended. In 2011, after the onset of an ongoing struggle with neurological issues that left her unable to continue her work as a combat medic, she took her first pottery class.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat with Shawna about her work since then. Now living and working in Knox, she makes sculptures in the studio on the ground floor of her home. She stresses that this is a ‘makeshift’ studio – she and her husband plan to build a new studio space for both work and classes. In the meantime, Shawna’s current workspace is where she spends as much time as she is physically able. On some days, she can devote hours to sculpting, but even on days when she can’t, she channels her creative energies into crocheting, drawing, and making jewelry and ornaments.
Shawna’s love of working with clay began when she started making art as therapy to cope with the trauma of war. “Clay is my head-shrinker,” she tells me with a smile. Then, becoming very serious, she goes on to say that many veterans, dealing with issues arising from their own trauma, cannot cope, and many take their own lives.
Difficult topics, such as the repercussions of war on veterans, are often the subjects that Shawna addresses with her artwork. Much of her work is military-themed. “The goal with my art,” she says, “is to create conversations.” She is currently showing work at the UMaine Hutchinson Center in Belfast as part of their ‘Veteran Artists’ exhibit (you can visit the Hutchinson Center to view the exhibit through March 10). She is also planning a solo show in the near future, on the theme ’Animals of War’ to highlight the contributions of dogs throughout American military history.
Shawna knows that I am a big fan of one of her dog sculptures in particular: an Airedale terrier transporting a carrier pigeon on its back. (Shawna writes on her Facebook page, “Carrier pigeons were often used during WWI to transport messages back and forth. These pigeons were then transported/carried themselves by a variety of dogs and horses.”). This particular sculpture has such meticulous detail in its fur that I can’t stop staring at it.
She shows me how she creates her sculptures. “I roll out the clay a quarter-inch thick,” she says, “and cut it into strips.” Using the strips of clay, she can build up the form of her sculpture, cut it apart to hollow it out to an even thickness, and then reassemble it for firing after all of the delicate shaping and detailing is finished. She either glazes or paints her pieces, depending on the look she is going for.
I ask Shawna what inspires her. “Life,” she replies. “The world around us. And my time in the service.” She also loves the ocean, and the proximity to the shore is one reason she enjoys living in Maine. She is drawn to Maine for several reasons, such as the farming community (“I grew up on a farm, so that was a big pull,”) as well as the arts community here. However, she tells me that it’s much more difficult to participate in arts-related groups and events for those like herself who have conditions that make it difficult or impossible to navigate non-accessible buildings. She plans to start teaching sculpting classes, and hopes to continue finding ways to get more involved in local arts.
Despite any difficulties she faces, Shawna clearly loves her work. When she and I are talking about how making art can serve as therapy, her son Caden, sitting nearby, tells her that he can see the difference in her mood when she’s creating. “It seems like you’re happier,” he says, and she agrees.
You can read more about Shawna and view some of her work at her website: www.shawnabarnes.com
You can also check out her Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/shawna.n.m.barnes/
If you or someone you know is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, you can read about resources for assistance here: www.ptsd.va.gov/public/where-to-get-help.asp